BOSTON -- Greatly to Shannon O'Brien's advantage, the Boston Irish have finally figured something out: If they knife a Democratic candidate they get a Republican governor, despite the overwhelming preponderance of registered Democrats in the state. Massachusetts has had a Republican governor for the past 12 years. In the last debate of her campaign, the state treasurer didn't seem to appreciate her luck. She played to her sisterhood rather than to her ethnic base, having in mind the National Organization for Women rather than the Knights of Columbus.
The five Democratic men she beat in the primary have been on their best behavior. All have forsworn the backbiting and spite that hindered previous standard-bearers Michael Dukakis and Scott Harshbarger, both of whom were charged with self-righteousness. They are breaking a pick for her.
Mitt Romney, the tall, dark and handsome Olympic Games master, is trying to make a comeback in the state that rejected him in favor of Edward Kennedy in 1994. He big-footed the hapless acting Republican governor, Jane Swift, off the scene, with the approval of the entire Republican hierarchy. He promises to clean out the tyrannical Democratic overlords of Beacon Hill, and he thinks he will have the support of Democrats who don't approve of single-party control -- although they have never said so on the public record.
O'Brien, 43, has always seen her tight race with the glamorous Romney as a war between the sexes, and herself as an in-your-face feminist in the Hillary Clinton mode. She had already made it hard for the Irish by her support of gay marriage, an alien concept in the pious suburbs of Boston, and her doctrinaire debate presentation of the case for lowering the age for abortion without parental consent from 18 to 16 made it harder.
One liberal Democrat, a stay-at-home mother of two who didn't want to give her name, was disgusted by the debate and said, "She's too rude to be governor of Massachusetts." The soccer mom was deeply offended by O'Brien's "cavalier" attitude on abortion -- "We accept abortion, but we don't want to go that far."
Betty Ann Keane, 74, mother of 11 and deeply Democratic, was turned off after the hour-long encounter, sponsored by the Boston Herald, between O'Brien and Romney at Suffolk Law School. She never dreamed of voting for Romney, but O'Brien's implicit assumption that she's bound to beat out a Mormon grates on this grandmother: "She should at least be aware of us."
The thoroughly shaken Irish Catholics of Boston are hungry for a victory.
They were shattered by the Boston Globe's revelations about pedophile priests, outraged at Cardinal Bernard Law's complicity in covering up the horror and demoralized when the pope took Law's side in the argument that still rages among the faithful. The idea of winning something at last, with one of their own, a woman who looks like their second-grade teacher and has made a name for herself, was deeply appealing.
From the first, O'Brien, an alumna of the state legislature, was intent on proving to women what was obvious: that she is no Jane Swift. In every encounter, she was the aggressor. In the final debate, she interrupted Romney, glared at him and all but called him a liar, the whole time with a totally disconnected smile. She even sassed moderator Tim Russert.
Romney was just as bad in a different way. He was pained and lordly in manner -- as if he had been forced into the male lead of "The Taming of the Shrew" -- and vague on substance. He reproached her for "unbecoming" conduct. When he was pressed on the subject of a $2 billion budget cut, he spoke gauzily of "consolidation," which could be a code word for the downsizing of his venture capitalist days, an issue in his fight with Kennedy, who made much of the resulting layoffs and pension losses.
O'Brien tried to make the same point, and Romney insisted he wasn't responsible for the disaster: He was at the Olympics.
Massachusetts Democrats don't think they have much of a choice. Some talk wildly of voting for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who is getting the 6 points that could be the margin for O'Brien. Boston pollster Gerry Chervinsky of KRC Communications Research said his election-eve surveys showed the race in an absolute dead heat. O'Brien's lead among women, which was once at 18 points, had shrunk to 8. She could still win, but if she doesn't she won't be able to blame the for-once-unified Massachusetts Democrats.