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Caucuses present first test to Democratic gubernatorial field

They have spent months courting activists in living rooms and community centers, trying to stand out in a crowded field. Now comes the test: Can any of the five Democrats running for governor tap into the grass-roots energy that helped a little-known candidate named Deval Patrick emerge as a force to be reckoned with in 2006?

At 160 caucuses held across Massachusetts this weekend, Democratic activists will begin the monthlong process of electing delegates to send to the party’s convention in June. The caucuses, high holidays for the party faithful, may be obscure to most voters, but they play a critical role in determining which candidate has organizing muscle and enthusiasm in the party base.

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For the political newcomers in the race — Don Berwick, Juliette Kayyem, and Joe Avellone — it is a chance to prove they have what it takes to challenge their more established rivals, as Patrick did eight years ago when he trounced Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly at the caucuses.

Attorney General Martha Coakley, for her part, is hoping to avoid Reilly’s fate by showing that she can translate her wide lead in the polls into support from Democratic activists, some of whom are still smarting from her loss to Scott Brown in the 2010 special election for US Senate.

For Treasurer Steve Grossman, the challenge will be to show that even though he is trailing Coakley in the polls, he has strong support in party ranks after months of wooing local officials and activists at clambakes and chicken dinners.

Patrick’s victory in the 2006 caucuses looms large over the contest, widely remembered as the first definitive sign the charismatic lawyer from the South Side of Chicago might break out of the pack and become the Democratic nominee.

“It was a milestone,” said John Walsh, a former state party chairman who managed Patrick’s 2006 campaign. “If you were active and engaged in this stuff, you felt there was something going on.”

This weekend’s first round of caucuses, which are open to all registered Democrats, will not definitively determine who will make it to the June convention, but could give an early sense of which candidates are exceeding or falling short of expectations.

About a third of the delegates to the convention will be picked this weekend, when party members loyal to a particular candidate will vie to win the support of the other Democrats in attendance at the various caucuses.

Every candidate for statewide office will need the support of at least 15 percent of the delegates at the convention to qualify for the September primary ballot.

That has the campaigns scrambling to make sure party regulars show up at the gatherings, while also trying to manage expectations.

The Coakley campaign said it expects Grossman — who entered the race before her and has boasted of his support from many local officials — will win the caucuses. Tim Foley, Coakley’s campaign manager, insisted the attorney general is just focused on using the caucuses to begin identifying and organizing supporters in various locations and making sure she clears the 15 percent threshold. “She hopes all five candidates make the ballot and looks forward to a substantive, competitive primary campaign,” Foley said.

Chandra Allard, a Grossman spokeswoman, argued that Coakley has the upper hand in the fight for delegates.

“Obviously, we’re not the frontrunner here,” she said, pointing to polls that show Coakley far ahead of the field. “So the frontrunner is expected to do well tomorrow.”

Still, she said, Grossman will have supporters at 157 of the 160 caucuses this weekend and will personally attend five on Saturday and five on Sunday. Family members, including Grossman’s sons, Ben and David, will also be dispatched to caucuses, she said.

Matt Patton, a Kayyem spokesman, said the former homeland security official has been holding house parties and conference calls to woo delegates, but does not expect to stun the political establishment.

“We’re just looking to get our 15 percent,” he said. “We don’t think we will be the Deval Patrick from 2006.”

Leigh Appleby, a Berwick spokesman, was more confident in his predictions. He said the former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has 1,000 supporters planning to run as delegates, and 3,000 planning to pack the caucuses and vote for them. “We’re certainly expecting to get 15 percent, and I would say we expect to exceed that,” he said. “Our campaign is very, very well organized, and it’s all coming from volunteer enthusiasm.”

Avellone, a biopharmaceutical executive, embraced the role of political outsider, as Patrick did in 2006.

“I’ve been in over 130 cities and towns, met thousands of activists, and my message is resonating,” he said in a statement. “People are tired of Beacon Hill insiders and looking for someone new to create thousands of jobs and lower healthcare costs.”

Philip W. Johnston, a former state party chairman who is backing Grossman, said some of the candidates may have trouble clearing the 15 percent hurdle at the convention.

“That’s a heavy lift for second-tier candidates this time,” he said.

Walsh said it is too early for such predictions, but added: “At the end of the month, you might find some people who are scrambling.”

The caucuses, 534 in all, will continue until March 2 in school cafeterias and American Legion halls.

“What the caucus and the convention really does is say to every candidate: You have to start early, and you have to start with our activist base,” Walsh said.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.
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