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State of the Commonwealth | 7:30 p.m.

Patrick’s legacy likely to shape gubernatorial race

In his annual speech tonight, Patrick is expected to highlight his legacy as one to be embraced across the ideological spectrum.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

In his annual speech tonight, Patrick is expected to highlight his legacy as one to be embraced across the ideological spectrum.

One riddle has vexed gubernatorial campaigns in both parties this year, and it’s likely to grow only more nettlesome as the election approaches: how to treat the record of Governor Deval Patrick.

To hear Patrick tell it, as he is expected to do tonight in his rescheduled State of the Commonwealth address, his legacy is one to be embraced across the ideological spectrum: one of responsible economic stewardship, broad steps forward in public education, and an earnest effort to grapple with the state’s transportation funding shortfall.

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Last Wednesday, outlining his proposed fiscal 2015 budget, the governor said as much.

But Patrick’s tenure draws a shakier political verdict. Almost eight years after he made history as the state’s first African American governor, he remains personally popular. A WBUR poll released last week found that 52 percent of voters view him favorably.

Still, if eight years give Patrick much to tout, they also offer a vast firing range for candidates eager to portray themselves as an alternative or simply sound like a reformer.

Elections, with increasing frequency as the pace of politics accelerates, are about alternatives, and promises for improvement. Recall Ronald Reagan sliding the tombstone over Jimmy Carter’s presidency by asking near the end of their only debate, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

Or that, when Bill Clinton unhorsed George H.W. Bush in 1992, the first of three internal campaign mantras was “Change vs. more of the same.” (The second, more famous pillar was “The economy, stupid.” And the third was one Democrats might want to soft-pedal from this year, given the political environment: “Don’t forget health care.”)

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In a chronically volatile national political environment – the House of Representatives changed hands more times during 1994 and 2010 than it did between 1950 and 1994 – the “change” argument has proved salient.

Consider a few of Massachusetts’s most closely watched recent statewide elections. Elizabeth Warren ran as the brainy, liberal, almost polar alternative to the regular-guy, moderate Scott Brown, successfully depicting him as in cahoots with the national Republican’s conservative wing.

Brown, in turn, beat Attorney General Martha Coakley by campaigning against the idea of divine Democratic succession – it wasn’t the “Kennedy seat,” it was the “people’s seat.”

When Patrick beat Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey in 2006, he promised change, a lot of it, from the Romney years, of which Healey was a top participant. And Romney first body-checked acting governor Jane Swift out of the way, and then topped Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, by vowing to clean up Beacon Hill.

That message has been used, with varying degrees of intensity, in every gubernatorial campaign since.

Which brings us back to Patrick. The Democratic Party grassroots remain devoted to the man who delivered them from 16 years of Republican gubernatorial rule, and they are integral in the party’s caucuses and nominating convention. The first major hurdle for each of the Democrats is clearing 15 percent at the June convention in Worcester, so there is little incentive for the Democrats to run from Patrick’s progressive record. Both Coakley and Treasurer Steve Grossman have recently hewed left to back in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants.

In Coakley’s case, the awkwardness of criticizing a sitting governor of her own party – and with whom she has occasionally partnered politically – is compounded because two of her most visible advisers, Doug Rubin and Kyle Sullivan, both held top posts in the Patrick administration.

The Democratic field itself is perhaps the most liberal in state history for an open seat, without a single candidate who would proudly claim the moderate label. That in and of itself is a commentary on where the party is.

To a startling degree, every viable Democrat running statewide this year is a willing Patrick heir.

At the same time, Charlie Baker has picked up token opposition on the Republican side, in conservative Mark Fisher. But without Patrick to run against directly, and somewhat chastened by his 2010 failure, Baker has modulated his criticism of the governor.

In the middle are independent candidates Evan Falchuk and likely Jeffrey McCormick, who, like Baker, are freer to serve up Patrick critiques. Libertarian Scott Lively is also running.

Once the general election is underway, or the contours of the Democratic primary become clearer, the battle will likely shift to independent voters, where Baker has already been spending much of his time.

And then, as he wraps up his governorship and prepares for life after Beacon Hill, is where Patrick’s legacy will be wrestled over, with the identity of his successor in the balance.

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at James.OSullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.

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