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Adrian Walker

A mayoral race that won’t quit

Since entering this mayoral election as the sole challenger to the indomitable Tom Menino, John Connolly has traveled from underdog to favorite to slight underdog.

Despite that upheaval, he sounded like a man at peace as he raced between campaign stops Sunday afternoon. Earlier in the day, the parents’ brigade that supports him had rallied on his behalf at a school in Roxbury, and his search for the last few undecided voters had him heading to a Whole Foods downtown.

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“I think this election is a jump ball, but I think we’re surging,” Connolly maintained. “Our strength all along has been our ability to compete in every neighborhood. There’s a little bit of a David versus Goliath thing going on, but I feel good about it.”

His opponent, Marty Walsh, was upbeat too, lightly brushing aside Connolly’s claim to be the preferred choice of Boston mothers. “We have moms in our campaign, too,” he noted. “We have moms knocking on doors who have kids in the Boston school system that know that ... I have the right plan to improve schools.”

Sometimes the last weekend of a campaign is the calmest, the moment when reality begins to filter in. But that doesn’t hold for a race as close as this one, which has only become more contentious as the finish line nears.

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The last stretch of the campaign seemed to leave both candidates a little brittle. It was a little odd to hear Connolly, scion of a Boston political family, claiming the mantle of a little guy fighting a machine. Walsh, meanwhile, seemed a little weary of the persistent insinuation that his campaign is little more than a front for unions.

No one knows who our mayor-elect will be Wednesday morning, but every indication is that Walsh holds an edge in both support and field organization. The conventional wisdom could easily be upended — by a larger-than-expected turnout, for example. But heading toward Election Day, Walsh is ahead, a development that has taken some Connolly supporters by surprise.

It’s worth recalling how unlikely this race has been. Just months ago, Connolly was a quixotic challenger to Menino, and Walsh was a state representative with a low profile outside his traditional Dorchester base.

Conventional wisdom held that, given the city’s changed demographics, surely a person of color, and maybe a woman, would survive the preliminary and make it to the final round. The day Menino announced his planned departure, you would have bet against Walsh and Connolly as the candidates left standing in November.

But elections are always instructive, and this is no exception. Thanks to Walsh, we know that the political strength of organized labor is not the diminished force it was presumed to be. From Connolly’s campaign, we have a new appreciation for the public frustration with the public schools, even though they’ve improved. From both candidates, we have seen that even politicians who don’t care for each other can wage a mostly civil campaign.

The laziest storyline of the campaign has been the insistent carping that they are just two white guys. In terms of support, these have been two of the more inclusive campaigns in Boston history.

Walsh has surged to a lead largely thanks to the backing of people of color who have come to believe in him. Connolly’s campaign offers hope that reforming education can be a uniting political cause, rather than the notoriously divisive issue of history.

This election hasn’t engaged Boston voters the way some thought it might, but that won’t make its outcome any less of a turning point. Even for Connolly, who has spent his whole life in Boston, this campaign has been a revelation.

“I’ve seen so much that’s great about this city and how far we’ve come from the city I grew up in,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do, but it’s really been heartening.”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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