After nearly a decade dominated by charismatic political figures, subdued Massachusetts Democrats will gather for their state convention Saturday facing a dynamic rarely seen in the gubernatorial race: a front-runner likely to lose the convention and a convention winner who lags far behind in the polls.
Attorney General Martha Coakley owns a towering lead in all of the public opinion polls but will struggle to make a respectable showing at the party confab. State Treasurer Steve Grossman is expected to win the endorsement on Saturday, though surveys have him 35 percentage points behind.
Only once in recent decades has the convention choice not won the primary — Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti captured the convention endorsement in 1990, but ultimately lost the primary to Boston University president John Silber.
The convention has no official purpose other than to winnow the field and endorse a party favorite. The endorsed candidate gets no additional funding or structural support from the party. What is really at stake are political optics.
Grossman's camp is hoping the convention victory will give him enough of a bounce to catch Coakley before the Sept. 9 primary. Coakley's team insists any loss would be far from crippling.
The reality, observers say, may be somewhere in between. Grossman could build some momentum from the win, but whether he can avoid Bellotti's fate and close such a huge gap by primary day remains very much in doubt.
"Grossman would get a significant boost, just because he is languishing in the polls and has a low name recognition,'' said Peter Ubertaccio, a Stonehill College political science professor. "But I don't think that would spell the imminent collapse of the Coakley campaign. She has a lot of money, high name recognition, and a good team around her."
Still, Ubertaccio said that if Grossman wins the endorsement by a huge margin, Democrats are going to take a long look at Coakley's strength as the potential nominee, giving the treasurer the chance to make his case that he would be a stronger candidate in the general election.
"It means it would be a difficult summer ahead for Coakley,'' he said.
Complicating matters, three other candidates will be vying to make the ballot Saturday — Donald Berwick, Juliette Kayyem, and Joe Avellone will be vying to win enough support to afford them a spot on the primary ballot in September. Berwick, a former Obama administration official, is expected to clear the 15 percent threshold and some Democrats believe he could catch Coakley in the delegate count, or at least come too close for comfort. Kayyem's and Avellone's ballot chances are less clear.
Grossman's popularity with the insiders who vote at the convention stems from his long history with the state party. He has been a heavy fund-raiser for Democratic candidates over the years and served as both a state and national Democratic chairman in the 1990s. He also led the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, an organization regarded as one of the nation's most effective lobbying groups. And he has the added political clout of having run twice before for statewide office.
Now he is cashing in on the many chits and connections he built up over a quarter-century.
That network is particularly striking when viewed in contrast to skepticism over Coakley. The Democratic faithful, still smarting from Coakley's disastrous performance in the 2010 US Senate race against Scott Brown, are hesitant to line up behind her. The loss is a lingering memory that has sent shivers of panic from party leadership down through the ranks and has put a drag on her attempt to convince delegates that she has what it takes to win the general election.
"Their life blood is to win elections,'' Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic political analyst, said of loyal conventiongoers. "They are the ones she is finding most challenging to convince that she is the candidate to take on the Republicans in November."
Coakley has worked hard to counter that change. She hired Doug Rubin — the veteran political strategist and one of the architects of Deval Patrick's and Elizabeth Warren's campaigns — to help her develop the same kind of highly sophisticated grass-roots field organizations.
Her poor showing in the party caucuses this winter undercut her advisers' claims that they have amassed a successful field operation, however, and Saturday will provide an important measure of her political chops.
"Conventions are the first true grass-roots organization test for a statewide campaign,'' said Marsh.
After the convention, Coakley will have to step up efforts to energize her operation to hold her lead in the Democratic primary heading toward September and to prove she has the political muscle to win against Republican Charlie Baker in November.
The enthusiasm gap is one vexing the entire crop of candidates as energy surrounding this campaign is lower than at any nearly point in the past decade, when Patrick and Warren engaged a large, new swath of political activists. Those supporters rallied at conventions and helped create a broad grass-roots network that fueled enthusiasm for those campaigns, the likes of which had not been seen in at least a generation, since the peak of Michael Dukakis's political career.
Excitement this year is so low that going into the convention there is a larger-than-average spate of uncommitted delegates.
For either Coakley or Grossman to pull off a decisive victory in September, they will have to move beyond the delegate fight and find a way to bridge the enthusiasm gap with voters.
"Grossman is very nice, very competent, raised a lot of money, but I just don't think he is very charismatic,'' said Eve Dalmolen, a delegate from Chatham. "You have to take that into the calculus. I am staying uncommitted until the convention and then hear what they have to say."
Dalmolen, who chairs her Democratic town committee, said that Coakley's campaign had failed to follow through on some of her requests this year. For example, she said she asked the campaign to supply her committee with the papers needed to collect ballot signatures, but, despite repeated promises, was sent nothing.
One high-ranking official, Deb Kozikowski, the state party's vice chair, who is backing Grossman, said Coakley's continued missteps — campaign finance irregularities that prompted a nearly $18,000 fine and her failure until recently to reimburse the state for use of a state-owned car when campaigning — has added to her image as a clumsy campaigner.
"It's being fueled by her 'oops' moments,'' she said. Kozikowski said she has a lot of respect for Coakley as a prosecutor, but worries that the attorney general lacks critical political skills.
Coakley's consistent, huge lead in the polls, however, appeals to some Democrats for whom victory in November is the overriding concern.
Candace Wheeler, a delegate from Gloucester, said she was "leaning toward Coakley" in part for that reason.
"I don't want to shut out the opportunity for a wonderful candidate just based on electability, but it's really important to me that the next governor is a Democrat and will continue with the array of Democratic values that we as a party stand for," Wheeler said. "Charlie Baker, I think, is more moderate and will take some of our conservative Democrats."
As for whether she worries about Coakley's impending convention performance, Wheeler noted that Saturday's gathering might not have all that much bearing on September's primary. "The convention is not the election," she said. "They are two very different animals."