Even as the 50-year-old Mr. Patrick, running under the slogan “Together we can!”, showed early signs of stirring interest among party activists across Massachusetts (people whose participation in state politics had waned over the preceding two decades), he was dismissed as “too liberal” to win in the fall—an odd charge given the state’s fealty to the likes of Ted Kennedy and Mr. Dukakis. “Too liberal,” of course, was code for “too black.”
So the skeptics lined up behind the utterly uninspiring and visionless state attorney general, Tom Reilly, whose main claim to the nomination was that it was his turn. Then, they realized Mr. Patrick’s grass-roots army was capable of overwhelming Mr. Reilly’s inevitability. But instead of uniting behind Mr. Patrick, they recruited at the last minute a third candidate, a wealthy businessman named Chris Gabrieli.
As the primary neared, Ms. Healey, the Republican candidate, telegraphed the same dim view of Mr. Patrick’s fall chances, directing her own resources into ads that attacked Mr. Gabrieli and helped secure the nomination for Mr. Patrick. (Not that Mr. Patrick needed the help—his primary total was equal to those of his two foes combined.)
It was then that it became clear how much attitudes in Massachusetts had changed—and how a magnetic message and personality can conquer long-standing cultural suspicions. Seeking to turn the same conservative Democrats who hated busing against Mr. Patrick, Ms. Healey launched a series of race-baiting television ads that could have been authored by Jesse Helms. In the worst, footage of a nervous woman walking tentatively through a parking garage was interspersed with images of Mr. Patrick, all under a narration that accused him of coddling a rapist.
Ms. Healey’s strategy was exactly what Democrats who had been skeptical of Mr. Patrick’s chances had been expecting. And maybe it would have worked in the old Massachusetts—but not in 2006, and not against Mr. Patrick and his infectious optimism. He won the election by 20 points, and proved that he’d been the strongest Democratic candidate all along.
Mr. Obama now faces behind-the-scenes cynicism in his own party, from fund-raisers and other bottom-line types who praise him publicly while privately contending that he just can’t win in the fall because of his race. But after Deval Patrick carried South Boston last year, who’s to say what turf is off-limits to Barack Obama?