MASSACHUSETTS voters on Tuesday will hand the challenging job of governor to a candidate who has never held elective office. But no one is going to call the outcome of the contest between Democrat John Silber and Republican William Weld until the ballots are counted. A Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll published Sunday indicated that Mr. Weld, a former assistant United States attorney general, had narrowed the 9-point led Boston University president Silber held a week ago to 3 points. With a 3 percent margin of error, that made the Massachusetts contest statistically even. Forty-four percent of those polled favored Dr. Silber, 41 percent Mr. Weld, and 3 percent independent candidate Len Umina.
Many of the 12 percent who the poll indicated were undecided are believed by some pundits to have supported outgoing Gov. Michael Dukakis and his liberal programs.
Along with a tax-cutting referendum question, Silber's personality is a hot campaign issue that could determine voting behavior in either direction, political observers say.
A tough-talking Texas transplant who promises to shake up the Massachusetts bureaucracy, Silber, on leave as president of Boston University, is campaigning on his management experience in that post. But his forthright manner and startling statements often overshadow his message. Although his comments about women, minorities, and the elderly have angered many Bay Staters, others find his no-nonsense style and combative approach refreshing.
With no establishment figures still in the race, voters are focusing on the personalities of the two candidates, both running for elective office for the first time, and both fiscal conservatives.
Mr. Weld, a former US attorney and assistant attorney general, has put $1 million of his own money into his campaign. Although he favors dramatic government spending cuts, he has drawn support from liberal groups for his commitment to the environmental issues and abortion rights.
Silber angered women's groups, for example, by saying that women who pursue careers risk neglecting their children. He later qualified the remark by saying that such child neglect is limited to high-income parents who both work, not because of necessity, but because of their ``overweening materialism.''
In another shocker, Silber angered environmental groups when he tried to minimize concerns about wetlands protections by saying the land would be suitable for development because beavers are always busy making wetlands.
Not all the reaction to Silber's outbursts are negative; it appears that many voters like his candor.
One huge factor in Silber's favor is the predominance of Democrats in Massachusetts, many of whom automatically pull the Democratic lever in the voting booth. ``I think in this state it's always the Democrats' race to lose,'' says Martin Linsky, a professor of public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School. He says voter anger at incumbents is no longer an issue since both party-endorsed candidates were rejected in the primary. ``I think some of their anger has been satisfied,'' Mr. Linsky says.
Another possibly decisive factor in the election is a controversial tax-cutting referendum question. Question 3 initially drew wide support from voters upset over the state's inability to solve its budget deficit crisis. After months of legislative chaos, Massachusetts' budget deficit ballooned to over $1 billion before a spending plan and the state's largest-ever tax package were passed last summer. Question 3 would roll back all taxes and fees to 1988 levels and shave off more than $1 billion in revenues after the first six months of implementation.
Silber opposes the measure, saying it will bring the state to ``fiscal meltdown.'' Weld supports it and says it will force the legislature to make needed spending cuts. But the measure has gradually lost support since the primary. In a recent poll, 55 percent of respondents indicated they would vote against the measure, while 36 percent said they would support it.