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The Boston Globe

Metro

Adrian Walker

Attorney General race remains a tight affair

Democratic candidates for Attorney General Warren Tolman (left) and Maura Healey answered questions at a forum in Brockton last month.

Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe

Democratic candidates for Attorney General Warren Tolman (left) and Maura Healey answered questions at a forum in Brockton last month.

When Warren Tolman played the part of Charlie Baker during Deval Patrick’s practice debates four years ago, he would stop at nothing to throw off the governor.

At one session, that included showing up wearing a toupee over his balding scalp, so he more closely resembled the boyish Baker.

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“[Patrick] said, ‘You have to take it off. I’m laughing too hard,’ ” Tolman recalled Thursday in a phone interview. “He couldn’t debate.”

Tolman’s shared history, and personal rapport, with the governor helps explain why it wasn’t surprising to see Patrick endorse him over Maura Healey on Thursday for attorney general.

But it also underscored the underlying dynamic in the most intriguing race on the ballot on Tuesday. Tolman, the former state senator who has run for governor and lieutenant governor, is the runaway favorite of Beacon Hill fixtures. Healey, a former assistant attorney general who left the office to run, has galvanized grass-roots activists.

Patrick has rarely picked a side in party primaries, but he was downright effusive in a statement endorsing Tolman.

“From gun safety to health care costs to consumer protection and civil rights, I want an AG who will not only enforce the law effectively, but also use the influence of the office strategically to improve the lives and prospects of Massachusetts people and small businesses,” he said. “Warren Tolman will be that kind of leader.”

Depending on where you’re standing, Patrick’s endorsement of Tolman is either a powerful closing argument, or an act of much-needed support for a candidate heavily dependent on establishment support.

Tolman’s original expectation of an easy win over an unknown was dashed long ago. Indeed, Healey has proved so effective at kicking him around in debates that Tolman has skipped three in the past week.

She faults him for what she calls his narrow focus on smart gun technology. Further, she alleges that he profitted from lobbying during his private-sector career; and she criticizes him for working with online gaming companies.

Tolman, in turn, has sought to portray Healey as an uninspiring bureaucrat who thinks too small.

Healey brushed off Patrick’s endorsement of her foe. That’s what candidates do, of course, but she noted that six newspapers, including this one, have endorsed her. Her clear message was that people looking at the race objectively prefer her.

“I knew when I got into this that the Beacon Hill political establishment wasn’t going to be with me,” Healey said. “That’s just the way it is. I also know I’m someone who’s taken a stance against what many insiders want on casinos. What matters is what the voters do on Tuesday. I’m feeling great about the enthusiasm and energy I’m seeing.”

Primary races are often snoozes, pitting candidates who disagree only on the margins. This race has been an exception, partly because these candidates really would approach the job so differently. Healey likes to refer to the attorney general as “the people’s lawyer,” while Tolman often speaks as though he’s still in the Senate. He talks about passing laws; she wants to prosecute people. It’s a completely different emphasis.

Tolman, who served as a legislator in the 1990s, has discovered just how hard it is to restart a political career; without his deep reservoir of old friends in the business, he might be well behind. Of course, running against most of your party’s establishment, as Healey is, presents lots of challenges too.

Still, if I had to pick a hand to play, I’d take Healey’s. She has an energetic core of supporters, recent and serious prosecutorial experience — and an electorate that tilts female. Tolman counters with personal charm, some interesting ideas, and a bunch of endorsees who say they will get out the vote. That’s not nothing, but it isn’t inspiring, either.

This race was once Warren Tolman’s to lose. Will his influential supporters be enough to keep him from losing it?

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.
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