CAMBRIDGE — For a few brief moments Sunday afternoon, in the foyer and cafeteria of an elementary school, Democratic elected officials and candidates attained critical mass.
Before the plates of bagels, vegetables, and chips and dip were picked through; before the slow and meticulous work of counting votes had begun; before the local activists hoping to be elected delegates to the June Democratic convention made their short pitches, there were many ambitious Democrats in close quarters at this Cambridge caucus.
They included four of the party’s five gubernatorial hopefuls. Attorney General Martha Coakley shook hands with an ebullient supporter. Treasurer Steven Grossman listened attentively to a voter. Donald M. Berwick made the rounds. Juliette Kayyem introduced her 75-year-old father to a cluster of Cantabrigians.
Candidates for lieutenant governor, treasurer, and attorney general also mingled, while Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan asked passersby for signatures and Representative Katherine M. Clark hugged a supporter.
Then US Senator Edward J. Markey bounded in, wide smile on his face and big coffee cup in his left hand.
The frenetic preshow and the more low-key caucus itself offered a window into the sometimes boisterous, sometimes staid events that, taken together, mark the first real test of the campaigns of the Democrats hoping to succeed Deval Patrick.
In an age of meticulously managed political programs marked by candidates reciting rote talking points often promulgated from party headquarters in Washington, D.C., the caucuses are a throwback to a more local, unscripted strain of politics.
It is a “great experience to see democracy as it was practiced in the 19th century,” said Robert Kayyem, Juliette Kayyem’s father, who had come in from California to join his daughter on the trail.
Cambridge’s Ward 9 gathering was one of more than 530 Democratic caucuses that launched this past weekend and are taking place across the state over the next month. The mission is to elect delegates to the state Democratic convention in June. Candidates must receive the backing of 15 percent of delegates at the convention to make the September primary ballot, so their campaigns work to get supporters chosen at the gatherings in cities and towns across the state.
As the caucus officially began in the cafeteria of the John M. Tobin Montessori School near Fresh Pond in Cambridge just after 1 p.m. Sunday, Markey spoke briefly to the 88 registered Democratic voters from the ward who had shown up and signed in to participate.
“This November, we’re going to go gold, gold, gold, and gold!” he said, firing up the crowd.
Markey, the only statewide elected official to speak, then briefly joined a few other politicos at one end of the cafeteria while the voters gathered at the other. The politicians filtered out to other nearby caucuses as Allan Isbitz, the chairman of the ward committee, explained the voting process. Any of 88 local voters who had checked in could be nominated. Each nominee would have up to 60 seconds to pitch their neighbors. Then those 88 people would, separately, elect five male and five female delegates to the state party convention in Worcester and, later, a few alternates.
Fifteen women were nominated to be delegates and each spoke briefly, most saying which gubernatorial candidate she backed and why.
One nominee was Maura Pensak, 55, who was mounting a bid to be a convention delegate for the first time. She said she was backing Coakley, whom she described as progressive and practical.
After the speeches, paper ballots were handed out and voters picked up to five of the 15 female hopefuls, which was followed by a slow hand-counting of the ballots. Isbitz announced the winners and the hand-written tally sheet of votes was pinned to the wall.
Pensak, who was among those elected, later said the Coakley campaign had reached out to her and encouraged her to run. The process unfolded in the same way for the men: 14 nominated, all spoke, ballots were cast, and winners announced by around 3 p.m.
Of the 10 delegates ultimately elected, eight expressed support for Coakley while two said they backed Kayyem.
While there were still alternates to elect, some attendees headed for the door having had enough grass-roots democracy for one day. Thomas M. McGee, the state Democratic party chairman, said in a phone interview Sunday evening that none of the gubernatorial hopefuls seemed to have surged ahead of the pack in the early caucuses.
State Republicans recently finished their caucus process. Two members of the GOP are vying for their party’s gubernatorial nomination: Charles D. Baker, who was his party’s pick in 2010, and political newcomer Mark R. Fisher.
An aide to the fifth Democrat running for governor, Joe Avellone, said while he wasn’t at the Ward 9 caucus, Avellone’s wife and sister showed up.
Also running for governor are independent candidates Evan Falchuk, a lawyer and former business executive; venture capital investor Jeffrey S. McCormick; and evangelical Christian pastor Scott Lively.