WORCESTER — Party infighting and last-ditch maneuvering raised tensions among Massachusetts Democrats on Friday as gubernatorial candidates angled for ballot access and strong showings in one of the most contentious convention fights in years.
With an unusually large percentage of uncommitted delegates filling the DCU Center, material evidence of candidates’ levels of support among the roughly 5,000 party activists won’t be apparent until delegates vote on the first ballot on Saturday afternoon.
That dynamic in the five-way gubernatorial primary race has imbued the Worcester convention and the broader campaign with an unusual air of the unknown.
Attorney General Martha Coakley holds a commanding lead in public opinion polls, but state Treasurer Steve Grossman has racked up sufficient support among party insiders to be considered the prohibitive favorite when delegates cast their endorsement votes.
Coakley is trying to prevent Grossman from receiving a first-ballot endorsement, hopeful it could create a more crowded ballot in the Sept. 9 primary and help her win the Democratic nomination. Analysts say Grossman needs a one-on-one primary battle to cut Coakley’s lead in the polls.
On Friday, Coakley’s camp was having internal discussions around the option of a parliamentary maneuver designed to muffle the momentum Grossman is expected to gain from the convention: After the first ballot, there would be a call for a voice vote to give Grossman the endorsement, in order to deprive him of a gaudy percentage.
For three other candidates — biopharmaceutical executive Joe Avellone, former federal health care administrator Don Berwick, and former homeland security official Juliette Kayyem — the battle is simply to garner 15 percent support in order to qualify for the primary ballot.
Of those three, Berwick has demonstrated the most backing among delegates, and in the last several days, some Democrats speculated that he could surpass Coakley.
“No question, we’re going to turn some heads,” Berwick said as he greeted delegates on Friday.
Should Coakley finish below Berwick, it would probably raise anew doubts among party activists still smarting from her 2010 US Senate loss to Scott Brown.
Working the floor on Friday evening, Coakley said she would be “happy to get 15 percent.”
Asked about the gap between her comfortable advantage in the polls and the potential for a convention stumble, the Medford Democrat replied, “The purpose of the convention is to get 15 percent. The purpose of the primary is to win.”
The hours before Saturday’s vote were roiled by last-minute buttonholing, outright pleas, and cajoling as each camp battled to secure uncommitted delegates.
Adding to the sense of uncertainty about Saturday’s outcome were questions about how many delegates would attend and vote.
Grossman said he spent “five or six hours” calling delegates during each of the prior two days, and that his goal for the convention was to emerge “with the wind at our backs.”
Kayyem declined to make a prediction, but said she was optimistic about obtaining her 15 percent.
“I’m the candidate who doesn’t declare victory until the counting is over,” she said.
Avellone, who has spoken critically of the 15 percent threshold, said he had generated support in recent weeks in Worcester, Norfolk County, and Boston.
Diana Painter, a delegate from Fairhaven, said she was still weighing her vote but leaning toward either Kayyem or Grossman. She planned to tour the various parties scheduled for Friday night and query the candidates to help her decide.
“The question is, who is viable and who do I really want to be with, in terms of the issues,” Painter said.
One other endorsement battle among the Democrats – a two-way race for attorney general – has also stirred interest.
Former assistant attorney general Maura Healey and former state senator Warren Tolman are in a tight race to fill the position Coakley is vacating. Tolman, the party’s 1998 lieutenant governor nominee, has strong support across party factions. Party insiders predict he will probably get the endorsement.
But Healey has mounted a spirited campaign to make the race competitive and is expected to record a strong delegate count. A Healey endorsement would be a major setback for Tolman.
On Friday, activists also heard from established party leaders. In a valedictory speech, Governor Deval Patrick, who sprang out of the 2006 convention in Worcester to a blowout victory in the fall, thanked Democrats for helping him rise to national prominence.
“Ten years ago, I asked you to put your cynicism down and say, ‘Yes, we can,’ ” Patrick said. “And, as my grandmother would say, ‘Look at us now.’ ”
Patrick, who has ruled out a 2016 presidential bid, took the stage with a playful wag of his finger at his former lieutenant governor, Timothy Murray, who used the closing lines of his introductory speech to tease Patrick about a future White House run.
US Senator Elizabeth Warren, who carried her 2012 convention with 95 percent, drew rousing ovations during a speech that hopscotched across liberal priorities she said Democrats were “willing to fight for.”
Senator Warren at Massachusetts Democratic Convention
In addition to the gubernatorial and attorney general fields, the Democratic ballot has two other races.
Former Brookline selectwoman Deborah Goldberg, state Senator Barry Finegold of Andover, and state Representative Tom Conroy of Wayland are running for the party nomination for state treasurer. Polls show that they are locked in a tight race, but largely unknown among Democratic primary voters. The three are expected to clear the 15 percent hurdle, but which one will get the party endorsement is not clear.
Even less known are the candidates for lieutenant governor. Steve Kerrigan, a former top aide to the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy and a longtime Democratic operative, is seen as a strong front-runner for the endorsement. Also vying for the party nod are Cambridge City Councilor Leland Cheung; former Peace Corps official James Arena-DeRosa; and Mike Lake, chief executive of an urban policy group.