Democrats yearn for good old days

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The Independent Online
WHEN Scott Harshbarger arrives at Faneuil Hall in Boston tomorrow night to debate with his Republican opponent, Paul Cellucci, in the race for the governorship of Massachusetts, he will have two men at his side: senators Edward Kennedy and John Kerry. They will be there for one reason - to remind voters of how politics used to work in this state. Democrats won and Republicans lost. And that was that.

So much for the good old days. Mr Harshbarger, a plain-speaking lawyer who has been the state's attorney-general for eight years, is struggling to unseat acting governor Cellucci. Only in recent days has the gap between the two closed enough for pollsters to declare the race a dead heat. Mr Harshbarger still needs all the help he can get. Hillary Clinton was here a few days ago, a week ago Al Gore came by to campaign.

As it becomes tighter, so this race gets more scrappy. Questions about Mr Cellucci's remarkable personal debt - more than $700,000 (pounds 426,000) - will not go away. Last week the contenders even got into a fight over witches. A few years ago, Mr Harshbarger, as attorney-general, threatened to sue some Christian evangelists for harassing a family in Salem who practised the pagan religion, Wicca. Mr Cellucci thought this odd, and said so in a controversial campaign advertisement featuring wart-nosed women in black pointed hats.

It is critical for Democrats that Mr Harshbarger pull this off. The party badly needs more governors. Already the Republicans have 32 governors in place across the country, all positioned to wield important influence on state politics. After 3 November, with 36 states due to choose governors, including populous states such as Florida and Texas, the imbalance could grow. "Republican governors may rival the National Park Service after this election in terms of their sheer control of land mass," commented Chris Henick, a former director of the Republican Governors' Association.

Mr Cellucci has the advantage of incumbency, which came to him by accident. Until 1996 he was number two to Republican Governor William Weld, who surrendered the post when President Bill Clinton nominated him to be ambassador to Mexico - a nomination that died in the Senate. Mr Cellucci's most powerful weapon is the state economy, which is in better shape than in many years. Why risk handing the tiller to Mr Harshbarger, he asks, especially when the economic outlook is shaky again?

Mr Weld, who had more obvious charisma than both these candidates combined and probably more brains too, made it thinkable for Republicans to prevail in Massachusetts when he won the governor's race in 1990. The man he replaced had presided over a period of economic decline in the state, and still casts a long shadow over the Harshbarger candidacy. His name is Michael Dukakis.

Mr Harshbarger has to win back core Democrats and independents in the state. But above all, his difficulty may be getting people to vote at all. At a neighbourhood association meeting in Dorchester, in South Boston, a few evenings ago, he stressed repeatedly the danger that voter lethargy holds for him. "There is a cynicism out there. How else could it be that my opponent has $700,000 in debts and no one seems to be bothered?" he said.

In a hall under Greenwood Presbyterian Church, Mr Harshbarger received a polite but hardly rapturous reception from a mostly blue-collar and ethnically mixed audience. Most people seemed more preoccupied with the chicken, rice and string-beans dinner than with the candidate.

In Massachusetts, as in Chicago and New York, it used to be that party loyalty got out the vote. Roger Porter, a political economist at Harvard University, agrees that those days are gone and that what matters is Mr Cellucci's record. "In the end, this is largely going to be a referendum on whether or not you are satisfied with the performance to date, he said."

Mr Harshbarger has not given up on the debt issue. How, on a state salary of $90,000 a year, Mr Cellucci dug himself so deep is anyone's guess. He has said it went on improvements to his home and school fees but few are convinced.