EVERETT, MASS. — The weekend campaign rally in a middle school gym echoed with familiar, feel-good themes of hope, inclusion and a call to "transform our political and civic life." The candidate quoted from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Jefferson, and the Kennedys (Robert and John) -- then trotted out a personal history of triumph over hardscrabble origins.
But the Democrat who is widely expected to reclaim the governor's office for his party for the first time in 20 years is anything but a standard-issue Massachusetts liberal.
Deval Patrick, 50, served as President Clinton's chief civil rights lawyer and was general counsel to Texaco and Coca-Cola Co. Raised by a single mother on the South Side of Chicago, Patrick would follow fellow Democrat L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia as the second African American governor since Reconstruction if he wins Nov. 7.
As a first-time office seeker, he spent the last two years building a broad network among the state's 2,157 precincts. Polls late last week put Patrick more than 25 points ahead of his leading Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey.
A Patrick victory would secure Democratic control of Beacon Hill, where just 13% of the state's legislators are Republican or Independent. The entire congressional delegation also is Democratic.
A potential Patrick win also would reverberate beyond this intensely blue state.
For Republicans, the Massachusetts governorship was a plum, said Jennifer Duffy, editor of the independent Cook Political Report in Washington. "It was the one place they always held up as an example, that they could win even in the bluest state," she said. "Losing it begs the question of when they will get it back ... or if they are headed for a dry spell."
Massachusetts is among five to eight governors' seats that Republicans are expected to lose next week, Duffy said. "The Republican hold is just more precarious nationally," she said. Patrick's potential win in Massachusetts also is notable, Duffy said, because "Patrick is African American in a state that is something like 86% white. I think that in this particular political environment, people have found his message hopeful and a little bit inspiring. I think there is a desire for that."
The Patrick campaign has drawn star-power supporters to Massachusetts, including former President Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barrack Obama.
Patrick also has benefited from a desire among many Massachusetts voters for change. The state has lost population steadily in recent years, particularly among young, well-educated residents who say they cannot find jobs or affordable housing. State financing for higher education has plummeted, putting Massachusetts behind Alabama and Mississippi in its funding of state colleges and universities.
A fatal ceiling collapse in July in a section of the Big Dig tunnel system that runs under Boston stirred up new concerns about the $14.6-billion project, and renewed fears about other crumbling roads and bridges. Many in Massachusetts also objected to Gov. Mitt Romney's habit of poking fun at the state as he explores a 2008 GOP presidential run.
Traveling in South Carolina, for example, Romney quipped that being a conservative in Massachusetts "is a bit like being a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention." "I feel desperate for change," said Raina Morgan, a hair salon owner from nearby Revere, north of Boston. Morgan, 48, called Patrick "a breath of fresh air," and said she admired the way Patrick rose above negative attack ads from the Healey camp.
"He took the high ground, and he stuck with it, and he gets my respect for that," Morgan said.
Healey, 46, is married to a wealthy venture capitalist. She poured millions from her family's fortune into a television campaign that showed Patrick coming to the defense of a convicted rapist. The ads, intended to portray Patrick as soft on crime, won praise from Marc Klaas, whose daughter Polly was kidnapped and killed in California.
Healey, a criminologist, defended the ads at a candidates' debate at Boston's Faneuil Hall. Addressing Patrick, she said: "It makes Massachusetts less safe when you advocate on behalf of a brutal rapist whom you have never even met." In addition, Healey said: "I think Deval has the wrong priorities, working on behalf of a convicted rapist who brutally raped a grandmother."
Patrick did not deny that he helped seek parole for Benjamin LaGuer, who was convicted in 1984. At the rally in this working-class community near Boston, he said: "I have on occasion represented the unsavory defendant. And you better be glad somebody does, because that's what puts the justice in the justice system."
Former Gov. Michael Dukakis, the last Democrat to occupy the corner office in Boston's gold-domed statehouse, called the ads even more vicious than the Willie Horton ad that helped sink his 1988 presidential race.
"This has been the dirtiest campaign in the history of the commonwealth," Dukakis said.