A governor's race with national star power

Tuesday's primary features a wide variety of ideologies and political personas.

No matter who wins the Massachusetts governor's race, it'll make for intriguing politics – and news that draws notice around the nation.

If the sole Republican candidate – Salt Lake City Olympics savior Mitt Romney – wins in November, America will get a newly prominent Republican moderate with soap-opera-star good looks and presidential potential.

If State Treasurer Shannon O'Brien wins, her brand of centrist politics and enormous appeal among women, who favor her 2-to-1, could make her a standout among governors. She's the favorite to win Tuesday's Democratic primary.

If former US Labor Secretary Robert Reich wins, he'll become one of the nation's best-known old-style progressive leaders. His fans already include liberal glitterati such as Mario Cuomo, Warren Beatty, and Annette Benning.

If former state Sen. Warren Tolman wins, he'll be one of the nation's first to do so as a "clean elections" candidate using only public funds – and perhaps the only winner with "Bald is Beautiful" ads, in which his wife calls him "hot."

And if state Senate President Thomas Birmingham wins, it'll mean control of state government by a cabal of uniquely unpopular Democrats. Rarely do so many voters know so much about – and dislike so passionately – the leaders of their state legislature.

"There are very few states in which politics is such a popular sport," says Tobe Berkovitz, a communications professor at Boston University. And with the state economy struggling, it's made for an especially passionate political season.

Polls hint at a volatile race for the Democratic nomination. A recent Boston Globe survey put Ms. O'Brien in the lead at 31 percent, with Messrs. Reich and Birmingham tied for second at 22 percent, and Mr. Tolman trailing at 13 percent. But it also found a lack of passion among O'Brien supporters: Fully 40 percent said they "could change" their allegiance.

A more-recent Boston Herald poll practically reversed the order for the men: O'Brien was still leading, but with Tolman in second, Birmingham in third, and Reich trailing.

A major part of O'Brien's success is her appeal among women. For one thing, she fits the centrist bill: A fiscal conservative who's eloquent on education and health care. She's supported gun rights for sportsmen, while backing an assault-weapons ban.

But observers say it's O'Brien's steel-and-velvet persona – she played rugby and soccer in college – that impresses women. "She's feisty without being abrasive," says Tufts University political scientist Jeffrey Berry. She's the kind of woman soccer moms and waitress moms relate to. Success among women could make her "the freshest new female face in the nation," he says.

Meanwhile, other Democratic candidates covet O'Brien's woman appeal. Reich often proclaims, "I'm the only candidate who is genuinely a feminist," citing his progressive health-care ideas and his wife's anti-domestic-violence work.

Birmingham – a basketball-playing politico who's bucking the image of a good old boy – cites endorsements from teachers' and nurses' unions, and often says, "If you want the greatest feminist governor in the history of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I'm your man."

If O'Brien has the women's vote, Reich has the academic and celebrity vote. In a jam-packed Harvard lecture hall the other day – where students in the back stood on tiptoes to see the diminutive Reich – the former professor held forth.

"Under my governorship, Massachusetts will be a progressive laboratory of democracy," he intoned. He got whooping applause when promoting "mixed-use zoning" to jumpstart inner-cities and voicing his support for gay civil marriage.

Observers say it's unlikely that Reich would beat Mr. Romney. But if he did, it would reconnect Massachusetts with its liberal tradition, and make Reich a high-profile progressive thinker and leader.

If Tolman wins, he'd be a Jesse Ventura-meets-Cinderella story. His "Clean Elections" candidacy got him $3.9 million in state cash. His "Bald is Beautiful" ads have endeared him to voters as an anti-politician – and bolstered his credentials as a reformer. But his tough attack ads have raised the hackles of many voters who don't like their money being spent on negative campaigning.

Tom Birmingham, meanwhile, has endorsements from most of the big unions and many state politicians. He also has a record of strong support for education and health care. But voter anger at state politicians – based on a decade of high-profile battles and gridlock, along with economic woes – has hurt his campaign. Observers say low overall turnout Tuesday would help him, since his supporters are most likely to hit the polls.

Whoever wins faces Romney. His near-mythic turnaround of the Salt Lake City Olympics means he's now part politician, part celebrity here. "With one successful term in Massachusetts," says Professor Berry, "he becomes a credible presidential candidate in 2008."

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