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In attorney general race, it’s down to the wire

Warren Tolman, left, and Maura Healey are running for attorney general.

John Tlumacki/Globe staff

Warren Tolman, left, and Maura Healey are running for attorney general.

It all seemed like a clear shot for former state senator Warren Tolman, with his deep ties to key blocs of the Democratic Party, but his bid to be the next attorney general has run up against an unexpectedly tough foe: former assistant attorney general and political neophyte Maura Healey.

Recent polls have shown the two neck and neck — several with Tolman a few points ahead. But a new Globe poll puts Healey significantly ahead of Tolman — 45 to 29 percent — indicating that she could be breaking away.

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And on Thursday Tolman received the endorsement of Governor Deval Patrick, who said Tolman would be “an activist AG, and I am excited about that.”

As a result, the battle for the party nomination for attorney general has become one of the most suspenseful on Tuesday’s ballot.

Each candidate is counting on several core Democratic constituencies and power bases within the party to win one of the most powerful positions on Beacon Hill, and both have strongly committed followers and some passion behind their candidacies.

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There is very little ideological difference between them. They agree on almost all the significant issues of concern to the liberal Democratic electorate that dominates the party’s primaries.

Their big difference is dueling visions of the role of attorney general.

Healey is an experienced prosecutor who says she can use those skills to fight for progressive causes and civil rights, and to protect consumer rights. Tolman is a veteran political leader, with appeal to both the establishment and reformers, who says his legislative battles for ethics and campaign finance reforms and against the tobacco industry will allow him to use the office as a bully pulpit to advance progressive issues.

But the battleground for each is the Democratic base, forcing them to court the various blocs and geographic areas that make up the Massachusetts Democratic Party.

Much of the struggle in the final days is being played out on the TV airwaves. Tolman holds the ad advantage, having used his years in Democratic politics to raise the most money. His campaign has bought more than $1.4 million worth of advertising, with much front-loaded in the final run-up to next week’s balloting. Healey is spending more than $800,000 in the final days.

What will happen between now and Tuesday’s vote? Here’s where the candidates are and what they need to do.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Maura Healey chatted with retired union member Herb Andrews, left, of Wakefield.

Healey, playing upon her reputation as a dogged prosecutor who helped overturn the federal ban on gay marriage, has energized two of the strongest voting blocs in the Democratic Party: women and gay activists. But from there, she has also built enthusiasm among general Democratic activists.

Mobilizing that coalition into a majority by Tuesday is her key to victory. Her campaign is counting on a strong turnout of women, eager to elect Martha Coakley governor and Healey as attorney general. Healey needs a strong majority of that female bloc — bolstered by a gay community eager to install the first openly gay attorney general — to win.

Debee Tlumacki for the Boston Globe

Warren Tolman (right) talked to Bob Pelaggi of Brockton (left) at the end of the voter education forum held at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton.

If women do not show up in dominating numbers, Healey will be struggling. And Tolman has not ceded that ground, promoting his legislative work for women in advertisements and promising to combat sexual assaults on college campuses. On Thursday, he kicked off a two-day statewide tour, campaigning with female mayors and legislators.

Other questions for Healey: Has she sparked enough excitement within the broader Democratic electorate to close the deal? Does her theme that the race is between her, the outsider, and Tolman, the insider, resonate enough? Is there enough groundswell among younger voters drawn to her claim to represent the party’s new generation?

For his part, with his heavy ad buy, Tolman needs to blunt Healey’s attempts to paint him as the establishment candidate, the insider, the favorite of the power structure and special interests. Just looking at his fund-raising sources and endorsements, that is indeed part of his profile. But he also has a record as legislator who challenged the entrenched leadership in battles over campaign finance and ethics reform, promoted publicly financed political campaigns, and fought the tobacco industry. Those fights endeared him to a strong base within the progressive wing of the party, a bloc, while aging but still active, that he is counting on to get to the polls for him.

Just as important, Tolman is depending on organized labor and several longtime political allies and institutional players in key Democratic areas: Mayors Martin J. Walsh of Boston and Joseph Curtatone of Somerville and Hampden Sheriff Michael Ashe.

His brother Steven Tolman, president of the state’s AFL-CIO, engineered an early endorsement — the only one by the state labor union — allowing all its political resources to help Tolman.

Walsh’s endorsement could also be critical for him. The new mayor and his team need to prove their political chops — a heavy vote for Tolman — in their first major endorsement. Ashe has been a longtime political powerhouse in his county, which includes Springfield, with ties to both progressive and regular Democrats. But an endorsement is one thing — putting his countywide muscle into the race is another.

Tolman also needs to focus his resources in areas where the regular Democratic vote on down-ballot races — which would likely favor him — will be heaviest. That would include counties like Hampden and Middlesex where there are primary races for district attorney, House, and Senate. Or in Essex County where Representative John Tierney is facing spirited primary opposition and where there are several lively House and Senate primary fights. Worcester Country is also likely to see some heavier voting, the sort that would favor Tolman, because of legislative primaries.

Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.
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