Leading Democratic gubernatorial candidates Martha Coakley and Steven Grossman are aggressively courting delegates ahead of the June convention — efforts that could ultimately force three lesser-known candidates off the ballot and create a one-on-one primary showdown.
With the party’s June convention approaching, the delegate grab serves an important purpose for both Coakley and Grossman: It solidifies the perception of each as the strong front-runners.
Under both Democratic and Republican party rules, candidates need to get 15 percent of the delegates in the first vote at the convention in order to appear on the primary ballot.
The larger the share of delegates captured by Coakley and Grossman, the less room there will be for the three first-time candidates: biopharmaceutical executive Joseph Avellone, former federal health care administrator Donald M. Berwick, and former homeland security official Juliette Kayyem.
“If Grossman is going for the win on the first ballot and Coakley is convinced she needs a credible showing, those strategies leave very little, if any, room for the others,” said Lou DiNatale, a Democratic political consultant who played a key role more than three decades ago in the creation of the party’s 15 percent rule.
For Grossman, posting an outright win by capturing the party endorsement with more than half of the convention vote on the first ballot has an obvious strategic upside: He could then have a clear shot at Coakley in a primary, a dynamic his advisers believe is optimal in that it would give him the best chance to collapse the huge lead she has enjoyed in early polling.
Paul Pezzella, a veteran Democratic operative and a Coakley supporter, said a direct race against the attorney general offers Grossman the best shot at a primary election win.
“In a head-to-head race, Grossman would be able to run an aggressive campaign contrasting himself to Coakley, something he might not be able to do in a multi-candidate contest,’’ Pezzella said.
For Coakley, however, the calculus is far more complicated.
Advisers for the attorney general — who is still grappling with party insiders’ belief that she lacks the political skills to run an effective campaign — say she too is focused on getting as many delegates as she can. By flexing muscle among the party activists and beating expectations of how many delegates she can lock up at the June 14 convention, she could ward off those doubts.
Grossman emerged from the Democratic caucus process last month with the greatest number of committed delegates, while Coakley hovered close behind, according to the consensus of Democratic leaders. More than 1,000 delegates remain uncommitted, however, and candidates will continue to court them between now and June.
If her strong standing in the polls holds as the convention nears, Coakley could decide to adopt another, riskier, strategy — throwing some delegates to other less-known candidates on the convention floor as a way to ensure a larger field. With Coakley’s help, at least one of the other three candidates would have a better chance of clearing the 15 percent hurdle.
Democratic strategists — including some of those advising both Grossman and Coakley — say they are convinced the attorney general, with her high name recognition, would be best-positioned if the ballot in September’s primary election is crowded. A busy field would take the heat off her as a front-runner, while muddling Grossman’s attempts to collapse her lead in the polls.
For Coakley, recent history points to the benefits of a crowded primary. After US Senator Edward M. Kennedy died in 2009, she quickly emerged as the favorite in a four-person primary that left candidates jockeying for attention in a compressed cycle for the Democratic nomination.
As the three male candidates squabbled, Coakley largely sailed above the fray and captured a convincing win in the December primary that year, despite ultimately losing the special election to Republican Scott Brown.
But if she were to purposely help crowd the ballot in this race, Coakley would risk taking a public relations hit for failing to make a strong showing at the convention. That fallout could deepen the unease within the party over her ability to run a winning campaign.
Worse, some veteran analysts say she could open herself to damaging attacks that she is manipulating the political process by trying to tailor the field.
“If the story after the convention is that she threw votes to another candidate, that could be perceived as a cheap political stunt and a sign of weakness,’’ said Joseph Ricca, a longtime Democratic strategist who has managed convention strategies for statewide candidates.
Deal-making to shape the ticket is difficult and has rarely been used since the Democrats’ 15 percent rule went into effect in 1982. Two years later, John F. Kerry, perhaps the most adept at convention-floor maneuvers, shifted some of his votes to lift a struggling rival onto an already crowded US Senate primary ballot. The addition of a conservative Democrat ultimately helped Kerry win the primary nomination.
But such horse-trading is unusual and not always successful.
“If history is a guide, there are not a lot of examples of candidates being able to move chess pieces to manipulate the September ballot,’’ Ricca said.
Coakley advisers continue to be coy about their exact plans for courting the large bloc of still uncommitted delegates.
“We expect to have a strong showing at the convention and to benefit from the support and momentum of thousands of grass-roots activists,’’ spokesman Kyle Sullivan said in a statement.
But he then hinted that the campaign would like to see a broader field.
“As we have said before, Martha believes that all five candidates deserve to make the ballot and looks forward to a spirited convention and Democratic primary campaign,” he said.
The Grossman campaign, while vowing to “fight to win the support of each and every delegate,’’ also tried to taunt Coakley into a position of having to make a strong showing in the delegate count.
“If Martha Coakley fails to capture their imagination, it spells deep trouble for her campaign,’’ said Grossman campaign manager Josh Wolf.
With the front-runners battling on the delegate front, the other Democratic gubernatorial candidates expressed optimism that with or without the wrangling at the top, they can capture the necessary 15 percent.
Of the three, Berwick is considered the most likely to clear that threshold.
“Indeed, if the convention were held today, we are fully confident that Don would make the ballot,” Berwick spokesman Leigh Appleby said.
Kayyem’s press secretary, Matt Patton, said that while Grossman has a “very strong’’ lead in the delegate count, Patton is confident that Kayyem, a former Globe editorial page columnist, can get over the 15 percent hurdle as well. Coakley, he said, has not gained the traction she claims to have.
“If people were at the caucuses, they would have seen this is a wide open primary,’’ he said.
A spokeswoman for Avellone also expressed confidence that he will qualify.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Matt Patton. He is the press secretary for Juliette Kayyem.