WORCESTER — Treasurer Steve Grossman won a solid but expected victory in the Democratic race for governor at the state party’s convention on Saturday, while Attorney General Martha Coakley, who holds a vast lead in public opinion polls, captured second place by a narrow margin.
Former federal health care executive Don Berwick used his appeal to the party’s left wing to pull within one point of Coakley at the convention, setting up a three-way race in the Sept. 9 Democratic primary. Berwick’s success on Saturday ensures that Democratic primary voters dissatisfied with either of the two more established candidates have an alternative.
Two other candidates, bio-pharmaceutical executive Joe Avellone and former homeland security official and Globe op-ed columnist Juliette Kayyem, failed to win the backing of 15 percent of the delegates necessary to reach the primary ballot.
Grossman has assiduously courted the insiders and grass-roots figures who make up the convention delegates, but has not been able to close the polling gap with Coakley among rank-and-file voters. If he can capitalize on momentum from his 12-percentage-point win on Saturday, Grossman could be able to shake the race from the holding pattern that has characterized it for months.
After the results were announced, Grossman sought to frame the primary as a two-way race between him and Coakley.
“I’m going to focus on Martha Coakley,” he said. “I’ve got to catch up with her.”
Meanwhile, Coakley insisted she was pleased with her showing.
“We’ve accomplished what we wanted to accomplish. We’re moving on to the primary,” Coakley said after the voting.
Grossman received 35.2 percent of the vote, Coakley took 23.3 percent, and Berwick got 22.1 percent, narrowly missing a second-place finish. Kayyem pulled in 12.1 percent and Avellone came in last, with 7.0 percent, party officials said.
Though Grossman captured the most delegates at the convention, a Globe poll of voters last week showed him 35 points behind Coakley.
Due to changes in the electoral calendar this year, candidates have a short window between the convention and the unusually early September primary election.
That means the candidates will probably be seeking to draw sharp contrasts, creating the potential for a divisive primary the likes of which Democrats have not seen in nearly a decade.
And Grossman’s 35 percent showing on Saturday disappointed many of his backers, who had hoped he could have topped 50 percent. After Coakley conceded the second ballot as a formality, Grossman won the convention endorsement by acclamation, with weary delegates eagerly heading for the exits.
Coakley has been trying to quell any lingering concerns activists might harbor from her 2010 Senate loss to Republican Scott Brown. In a high-risk, high-reward decision, Coakley addressed the notion directly in her speech to delegates Saturday.
“The 2010 Senate election was very painful for a lot of people in this room,” Coakley told the crowd scarcely 30 seconds into a speech that hushed the hall. “I understand how much of your heart and soul was in that race. Mine, too. I know so many of you worked in that race, and I thank you for that. That loss was difficult. But I made the decision to get back in the ring.”
After the speech, Coakley told reporters she “felt she had to address” the campaign that handed the seat held by Senator Edward M. Kennedy for 47 years to a Republican.
“I just felt it was really important today to say, I know that was really tough for people,” Coakley said. “It was a heartbreak, not just for Democrats in Massachusetts, for the whole country. And I thought it was best to deal with it in this group, up front, and say, ‘I know everybody suffered. I did. We got back to work, and we’ve got to get back to work now’.”
Grossman, talking to reporters after delegates had begun voting, sought to highlight the very misgivings Coakley had sought to alleviate.
“That failure to articulate that strong, vibrant, energetic sense of leadership that may have, among other things, cost the election in 2010, I don’t know if people have seen it in 2014,” he said.
Berwick spoke with reporters before the results were finalized, calling his finish just behind Coakley a “validation” of his focus on progressive views, citing his anti-casino stance, outright support for single-payer health care, and focus on poverty.
Berwick said his campaign was not anti-establishment, but “pro-justice.”
The second-most watched convention fight was the race for attorney general between former state senator Warren Tolman and former assistant state attorney general Maura Healey. Tolman eked out a victory of less than 4 percentage points over Healey, but topped the 50-percent threshold and thus won the convention’s endorsement.
For Tolman, a longtime party heavyweight making his third bid for statewide office, the slight edge over Healey offered reassurance of his support among institutional players and labor leaders. His brother, former state senator Steven Tolman, heads the state AFL-CIO.
Healey, a first-time candidate, has run a strong campaign, surprising some party veterans by essentially tying Tolman in public polls, with a majority undecided.
Both delivered arguably the two best-received speeches of the day, electrifying the room with forceful appeals to liberal values.
Former Brookline selectwoman Deborah Goldberg took first among the state’s three candidates for treasurer, followed closely by state Representative Tom Conroy, and then state Senator Barry Finegold.
Steve Kerrigan, a former aide to Senator Kennedy, placed first among the candidates for lieutenant governor. Mike Lake, chief executive of an urban policy group, took second. Cambridge City Councilor Leland Cheung narrowly made it to the ballot for lieutenant governor.
The convention marked the party’s most contentious in years, as Democrats seek a way to move on from nearly a decade marked by Governor Deval Patrick’s dominance. Since the party implemented the 15-percent threshold in 1982, no convention until Saturday had eliminated two gubernatorial candidates.
Kayyem fell less than 3 percentage points shy of reaching the ballot, or about 130 delegate votes of nearly 4,400. She had sought to rally delegates by laying out an implicit argument against voting for longtime party figures like Grossman and Coakley.
“Becoming governor is not a lifetime achievement award,” she said in her speech. “We don’t win elections when we settle for the next in line.”
The ouster of Avellone left the Democratic ballot without the field’s only self-proclaimed fiscal moderate. On Saturday, US Representative Stephen F. Lynch worked the floor for Avellone, sporting a campaign button.
“Joe is a good, solid Democrat, sort of a moderate and he’s focused on the issues that I care about,” Lynch said, citing economic development and addiction prevention.
Lynch criticized the party rule that candidates earn 15 percent on the first ballot, calling it “exclusionary.”
Several Democratic delegates, who declined to speak for the record, said they were worried about their party’s chances for the Corner Office in November, concerned that expected Republican nominee Charlie Baker will prove a more capable candidate for governor in his second run than he did in 2010.
During his speech in Worcester on Friday night, Secretary of State William F. Galvin said Democrats should expect “a challenging electoral environment both nationally and here in Massachusetts” this fall.
Baker first faces a primary challenge from Tea Party candidate Mark Fisher.
Three unenrolled candidates are also running: venture capitalist Jeffrey McCormick, United Independent Party candidate Evan Falchuk, and pastor Scott Lively.