Correction to This Article
This article misstated the amount that Gov. Deval L. Patrick's office estimated would be saved when the governor eliminated a requirement that police officers be present at all road-construction sites in the state. The estimate was that the use of civilian flaggers would save $12 million a year, not $100 million a year.
Massachusetts Gov. Patrick's reelection campaign a test case for Obama in 2012

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; A01

BOSTON -- "Are we fired up? Ready to go?" a woman yelled inside a steamy room here on the edge of Boston.

"We are fired up!" the candidate roared back from the stage, arousing chants of "Si, se puede" from some of the 300 people who hooted and hollered and turned this bill-signing ceremony into a campaign rally.

This was not Barack Obama circa 2008. It was Gov. Deval L. Patrick this month. And if he sounded suspiciously like the president, it was not by accident.

Many of the top strategists in Obama's political circle are helping to orchestrate Patrick's reelection campaign, and they are looking to his contest for clues to what might work for the president in 2012.

Friends for two decades, Obama and Patrick ran as optimistic outsiders who would take on the old way of doing things. Their politics are so in sync that in 2008, Obama borrowed Patrick's rhetoric to the point that Hillary Rodham Clinton, his opponent in the Democratic primary, accused him of plagiarism.

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"The campaign Deval Patrick built is the same campaign for change that you and I built across this country," Obama told Democrats at an April fundraiser in Boston.

Whether Patrick is reelected is likely to depend on whether he can again appeal to independents, who outnumber Democrats and Republicans in Massachusetts. Independents flocked to Patrick in 2006 and Obama in 2008 but swung decisively for Republican Scott Brown in a special Senate election last winter.

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Patrick is not trying to win them over by offering a new approach or backing off anything he has done. Rather, he is trying to convince voters that his plans to invest in green-energy initiatives and rebuild aging bridges and roads have created jobs and helped Massachusetts fare better in the downturn than many other places. No matter what happens to Patrick, the results of that approach will prove instructive for Obama, whose popularity among independents has plummeted since he took office.

Patrick will also provide a test of whether an updated pitch for change will resonate. In accepting the Democratic nomination this summer, he introduced a campaign slogan that takes this on directly: "We worked hard four years ago to change the guard. Now it's time to guard the change."

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There are limits to how useful Patrick's example will be for Obama. The makeup and political leanings of liberal Massachusetts are far different from much of the nation. And while bad, the economy here has not been ransacked the way it has in many of the states that will probably determine who becomes president.

Nevertheless, White House officials think Patrick's campaign will help decide whether a style and approach he and Obama share will continue to be successful.

"Obviously there is the path-of-least-resistance politics, and then there is this conviction politics that is more difficult but holds more promise," said White House senior adviser David Axelrod, who was a part of Patrick's first campaign and is advising him again this year. "I think they're both practitioners of conviction politics. The question is: Do you get rewarded for that?"

Reality of governing

Patrick and Obama share a similar worldview, political circumstance and biography: Both are Harvard Law graduates, have Chicago roots, and were raised by single mothers and haunted by the absence of their fathers. For years, they have shared some of the same key strategists, including Axelrod and David Plouffe, architects of Obama's 2008 campaign, and their partners, John Del Cecato and Larry Grisolano. And Patrick became the first African American governor of Massachusetts two years before Obama won his historic election.

Patrick stirred throngs of supporters with an inaugural address presenting himself as a symbol of optimism. He spoke in historical terms of his unlikely rise from the welfare tenements on the South Side of Chicago, "a place where hope withers," to the governorship of the state that "invented America."

Then a man who had never won elected office walked into the building he had campaigned against. Patrick was governor, and his reform crusade put him at odds with legislative leaders. They clashed as falling tax revenue required painful budget cuts.

With the economy cratering, Patrick set in motion long-range initiatives -- a $1 billion program to bolster the state's biotechnology industry, an overhaul of public education, a controversial wind-energy farm off Cape Cod -- that he believed would enable Massachusetts to recover faster and stronger than elsewhere.

But the governor's agenda provided little comfort to constituents who were out of work or struggling to pay bills, and voter dissatisfaction with him grew. Patrick now faces strong challenges from Republican Charlie Baker, a former health insurance executive, and Democrat-turned-independent Tim Cahill, the state's treasurer. Both are saying he has not done enough to control government spending.

"These guys are bunting when we need to be swinging away in terms of reform," Baker said in an interview.

Patrick has at times alienated key constituencies. For instance, Massachusetts was the only state that required the presence of police officers at all roadway construction sites. The governor revised the policy to allow civilian flaggers instead, saving an estimated $100 million a year. But he drew the ire of law enforcement unions, and police officers now picket outside his campaign events.

But, like Obama, Patrick says he takes the political long view, sticking to his principles even if that means suffering short-term political damage.

"If you really do respect democracy, and you really aren't in it to just win reelection but to do what you think is right, then you have to take the chance that you lead with conviction and someone will say, 'I don't like your convictions. I want to pick somebody else,' " Patrick said in an interview in the back of his Chevy Tahoe, shuttling between campaign stops. "That's okay. I will always be proud of what we've accomplished even if we don't have a second term to accomplish more."

A tough campaign

Baker has outraised Patrick this year, but in the three-way race the governor holds a six-to-seven-point lead in recent polls, with Cahill a distant third.

Baker and Cahill, both fiscal conservatives, have pummeled Patrick, accusing him of not doing enough to fix the state's budgetary problems and create jobs.

"What you typically hear on Beacon Hill from a lot of people is 'We think we're doing a pretty good job, all things considered,' " Baker said in an interview. "I disagree. I think they're doing a crummy job, all things considered."

Nevertheless, Patrick has rebounded from his low point in the polls, a change he credits to his frenetic campaign schedule. He is crisscrossing the state, defending his decisions and trying to rekindle the grass-roots energy that thrust him into office.

A few hours after Patrick left Dorchester on a recent Friday, he stood at the pulpit of an old Unitarian church in Nantucket and exhorted 200 voters assembled in the faded-pink pews to give him a second term -- not as a reward for the first one but because "we need to finish what we started."

"Our values don't depend on changes in the political climate," Patrick said. "Our values are timeless. And there are two at least that are at stake this election. One is the old notion that government has a role to play, not in solving every problem in everybody's life but in helping people help themselves." The second, he said, is "generational responsibility -- that each of us in our time is supposed to do everything we can to leave it better for those who come behind us."

Patrick credits some of his turnaround to Obama. Riding in the president's motorcade in Boston last fall, the two got to talking about the governor's campaign. Patrick told Obama he is ill at ease asking people for money or bragging. Obama looked out the window for a second, Patrick recalled, and then turned and said, "Deval, get over it."

So now, at campaign stops, Patrick says he focuses on why the economy is better here than elsewhere and the state's unemployment rate is 8.8 percent, below the national average.

Whether with inner-city youths in Roxbury or Asian Americans in Quincy, Patrick also evokes a moralist message of inclusion that gives the appearance of rising above the political fray despite being deeply mired in it.

"He gives me hope," said Thuy Vo, 39, a Vietnamese American teacher who joined 400 diners at a dim sum restaurant in Quincy to hear Patrick speak over brunch. "He's like Obama. He's our own Obama."

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