BOSTON, NOV. 2 -- In a state known for its liberal politics, both of the candidates for governor of Massachusetts are battling to convince voters that they are willing and able to slash state spending, cut taxes and restart the stalled local economy.
Democrat John R. Silber and Republican William F. Weld have fought hard to portray themselves as critics of outgoing Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D), the Democratic power-brokers in the legislature and the state budget deficits they have produced.
Weld, who is believed to be narrowly trailing Silber, received a welcome surprise Thursday when the liberal Boston Globe endorsed him. The newspaper said the key issue was "character" and praised Weld for his independence and openness while spurning Silber as "contentious" and "overly cocky."
The Weld camp said the newspaper's backing may help nudge some liberals who cannot abide Silber into voting for a Republican. Today, in another reversal of the usual pattern, the conservative Boston Herald endorsed Silber, saying he "means real change" in state government.
In their final debate Tuesday night, Silber lashed out at his fellow Democrats in state government, saying that "the incompetence of the Dukakis administration is appalling to me" and touting his managerial credentials as Boston University's president for the past 19 years.
Weld, the former U.S. attorney here, provided a lengthy prescription for saving state dollars and vowed to tackle the "untouchable" parts of the state budget, including Medicaid, service providers and the cost of insuring state employees' health.
Throughout the debate, as they have for most of the campaign, Silber and Weld squared off over a ballot question that has dominated politics here this season. Question 3, drafted by Citizens for Limited Taxation, asks voters to roll back most state taxes and fees to their 1988 levels, forcing the state to cut more than $1 billion from a $13 billion budget almost immediately.
Weld, who was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the proposal, insists that it should pass and can be made to work. He argues that unless voters apply such a club to the legislature, entrenched Democrats will postpone major changes.
Silber has staked out a position just to the left. Saying that he agrees with the petition's goal of shrinking government, he calls the ballot question a prescription for "economic meltdown," arguing it would destroy the state's credit rating and worsen the recession. He promises to shrink government himself, over three or four years.
Before the last debate, most recent polls indicated that Silber enjoyed a slight lead but has yet to establish a firm hold on a majority of voters. While Silber has consistently registered 1 or 2 percentage points beyond each poll's margin of error, he has not been able to pull away decisively.
With only a few days remaining, many voters have told pollsters they are still undecided. Especially for liberal Democrats, who dominated Massachusetts politics for most of the past two decades, the choice between Weld and Silber is difficult.
Weld served as the nation's top crime fighter until resigning in a showdown with former attorney general Edwin Meese III, and Silber claims that as Boston University president he has taken the school from mediocrity and debt to world prominence. But in their political identities, the two candidates blur the conventional distinctions between liberal and conservative.
Weld hopes to hold the Republicans with his support of the tax-cutting measure and his opposition to gun control. But he has played to liberals on social issues, backing abortion rights, gay rights and environmental causes.
Silber has tried to hold onto many Democrats who depend on state programs by opposing the tax rollback and supporting education, while trying to bring conservatives back into Democratic ranks by making tough -- and sometimes gruff -- statements against the "special interests" of feminists, minorities, homosexuals and environmentalists.
Although Weld has mounted a spirited campaign and done better than any Republican running for statewide office in years, most analysts agree he will likely fall short -- if only because he is handicapped by the fact that just 13 percent of voters are registered Republican.
Most recent polls suggest that Republican hopes of a resurgence based on voter discontent with Dukakis and the Democratic establishment may be dashed next week. Not only is Silber leading Weld, but voters appear to be turning against the tax rollback and against almost all of the Republican candidates on the ballot.