Gubernatorial candidate Don Berwick sat in a plush swivel chair in the studios of Boston public radio station WBUR on Monday afternoon, a set of black headphones stretching from one ear to the other.
He talked, as he often does, about social justice and single-payer health care — deploying the unvarnished liberalism that recently propelled him to a third-place finish at the Massachusetts Democratic Convention and a spot on the party’s primary ballot in September.
Meghna Chakrabarti, co-host of the mid-day news show Radio Boston, said he’d uttered “words that make the hearts of true Massachusetts progressives soar.” But then, she asked the question that’s followed the candidate since he launched his campaign a year ago — the question that lingers even after his solid showing at the convention.
Can Berwick, who ran Medicare and Medicaid in the Obama administration for 1½ years, appeal to voters outside the left wing of the Democratic Party?
He’d face the question twice more Monday, once from a Boston Herald reporter and again that evening at a Democratic gubernatorial forum in Jamaica Plain.
For Berwick, the question is misplaced because, he says, it underestimates the liberal impulse of the entire state — a state that elected Governor Deval Patrick and Senator Elizabeth Warren.
“This is a place where people really want to honor the idea that we are in this together, community by community,” he said in the WBUR interview. “And no, I don’t feel this is confined to some kind of fringe progressive wing.”
It is the basic wager of his campaign — that a candidate running as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal can capture the public imagination and win.
It is not yet paying off.
In the most recent Boston Globe poll of likely Democratic voters, conducted just after the convention, 52 percent backed Attorney General Martha Coakley, 19 percent supported Treasurer Steve Grossman and just 8 percent were behind Berwick.
The anemic support owes something to Berwick’s relative anonymity. The Globe poll found almost nine in 10 voters did not recognize him or could not rate him favorably or unfavorably. Berwick says that will change as the public focuses on the race in the coming weeks.
But after the WBUR interview, no one at the Starbucks downstairs seemed to recognize the candidate as he stood in line in his pinstriped suit and wire-rimmed glasses, ordering a decaffeinated iced coffee and a slice of lemon loaf cake.
He said his wife would not be pleased with the pastry purchase. But Berwick, a 67-year-old pediatrician whose breakfast generally consists of shredded wheat and a sprinkling of Cheerios, claimed a lingering Father’s Day dispensation.
Father’s Day came the day after the Democratic convention. And while the other two Democrats who emerged from the party confab spent the morning at the Bunker Hill Day Parade in Charlestown, shaking hands and posing for photographs, Berwick stayed at home in Newton with his wife and four adult children, who are not often in the same place.
Berwick has eschewed standard political practice before.
A year ago, he announced his campaign not with a speech before sign-waving supporters, but with a press release issued while he was out of state.
Despite that, he has kept pace with Coakley and Grossman on fund-raising — tapping a national network he built through decades of work on health care issues. A Boston Globe analysis shows 56 percent of his donations have come from out of state, compared with 24 percent for Coakley and 17 percent for Grossman.
Berwick also claims a network of more than 1,900 volunteers, compared with the 1,800 claimed by Coakley and the roughly 750 claimed by Grossman. It’s a network he mentions a lot (three times in the WBUR interview) — a symbol of the liberal, grass-roots campaign he hopes to turn into something more.
Sitting under a green umbrella at the Starbucks, as the Green Line trundled by, he called dozens of those volunteers, in Brookline, Attleboro, and Springfield, to thank them for their work at the convention.
As he spoke, he took notes on his call sheet, alternating between two refillable pens — one, with blue ink, that dates back to his own bar mitzvah and another, with red ink, that he inherited from his late mother-in-law.
The red ink was for asterisks and brackets, meant to denote particularly enthusiastic volunteers. One of those volunteers asked, halfway through their phone conversation, about Grossman’s efforts to sideline Berwick — to cast the primary as a race between two better-known elected officials.
“That’s a tactic to try to marginalize us,” Berwick said. “But it’s not going to work.”