EVEN in this largely Democratic state, incumbent Republican Gov. William Weld is still looking strong as Massachusetts's gubernatorial campaign gets into gear.
The governor, who recently announced he will seek reelection this November, is so popular that only a few Democrats have dared toss their hats in the ring so far this year.
A Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll last month shows his highest popularity ratings ever. In the poll, 61 percent of those surveyed rated Mr. Weld's performance as above average or excellent, compared with 25 percent who thought he was doing poorly or below average.
``I think that right now, clearly, Governor Weld is the odds-on favorite to win a second term,'' says Paul Watanabe, political science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
But Weld's growing popularity may level off as the Democratic side takes shape, even though some big-name Democratic contenders shied away from the challenge, analysts note. United States Rep. Joseph Kennedy, state Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, and Boston University President John Silber showed interest but opted out.
The biggest question now is whether Raymond Flynn, Boston's former mayor and now the ambassador to the Vatican, will jump into the fray, given new revelations about his campaign-finance practices. His aides have revealed that former campaign worker Douglas deRusha may have embezzled $244,000 in 1993 from Mr. Flynn's campaign fund.
In addition, Flynn acknowledged faults of his own. He admitted he may have failed to repay $9,000 in campaign money he used for personal expenses while he was mayor. On top of that, Flynn's political ambitions in Massachusetts have not been welcomed by the State Department, which canceled his plans to attend a St. Patrick's Day parade in Holyoke, Mass., and possibly make a campaign announcement this month. Meanwhile, Flynn aides in Boston say he will make an announcement about his candidacy within three weeks.
Nevertheless, given his strong popularity in Boston and the lineup of Democratic contenders, Flynn could be the strongest challenger to Weld, analysts say. His populist image would serve him well against the governor, a Harvard graduate from a wealthy background, says William Schneider, political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
``Flynn is a genuine urban populist, is genuinely working-class. He connects with people effectively,'' says Mr. Schneider. ``...That says a lot to Weld, who has still the whiff of a patrician about him.''
Flynn's Boston ties
On the other hand, Flynn's close ties to Boston may hurt his chances in suburban and rural areas of the state where Boston doesn't always represent a popular image, says Schneider. State Sen. Michael Barrett, also running for governor as a Democrat, says Flynn's anti-abortion stance would harm his candidacy.
Meanwhile, other Democratic candidates are lining up as well. State Rep. Mark Roosevelt, who announced his candidacy last week, advocates a job-creation tax credit to reward firms for creating full-time jobs and less-stringent environmental regulations to encourage business growth.
The great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, he criticizes Weld for being a ``passive and inactive governor'' and claims the Bay State lost 100,000 jobs under his watch. Adding an interesting twist to the race, Mr. Roosevelt happens to be related to Weld's wife, Susan, who is Theodore Roosevelt's great-granddaughter.
Mr. Barrett promises to reinvigorate the economy and push forward universal health-care coverage for state residents. He supports the North American Free Trade Agreement, as well as some of Weld's downsizing and privatization initiatives in state government.
Former state Sen. George Bachrach, a liberal Democrat, also plans on entering the race. Mr. Bachrach promises to make government more responsive and beef up human-service programs, which have been cut under Weld.
In contrast to Weld, Barrett and Roosevelt are opposed to expanding new gambling initiatives in the state. Weld wants to introduce casino gambling and video poker to raise state funds.
In his announcement speech, he said he will crack down on violent crime, reform welfare, and bring new jobs to the Bay State. A fiscal conservative, Weld is moderate on social issues and favors abortion rights, gay rights, and strict gun-control measures.
During his three-year tenure, Weld also boasts of cutting taxes five times and balancing the budget every year. Weld and Texas Gov. Ann Richards (D) are considered two of the most highly rated state chief executives because both have avoided tax hikes, says Schneider.
In fact, some Republicans would put Weld in the lineup of possible GOP contenders for the 1996 presidential election, though his moderate views on social issues could hurt him with the party's strong right wing.