WHAT’S ALL BUT CERTAIN is that if O’Brien runs a by-the-numbers campaign, she’ll lose to Romney. To date, however, that’s all we’ve seen from the Democratic front-runner. The most alarming sign of her conservative strategy was her failure to respond to Romney’s entry into the race. By essentially ignoring his presence, she missed a crucial opportunity to damage the Republican millionaire at the start of his campaign. A well-executed series of television ads, timed to run during the Republican state convention, that trumpeted O’Brien’s homegrown but compelling credentials as state treasurer — such as her forcing the revelation of a $1 billion Big Dig overrun by refusing to put her name on Big Dig bonds until former chief James Kerasiotes fully disclosed the project’s financials — might have stolen some of Romney’s thunder. Such ads could have positioned her as the strongest Democratic challenger to Romney, but she and her team balked.
Sources within O’Brien’s camp say that any attempt to be heard above the cacophony of the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandal and the state’s budget crisis would be futile. More practically, they estimate that a week of television ads in Boston costs roughly $800,000, and note that if she tried this now, she would quickly run out of money. "I have my budget. My budget is what it is," O’Brien says. "I can’t just say, ‘Oh my God, it’s Mitt Romney, I’m going to spend more money.’ "
Nevertheless, this image game is important because Romney’s campaign — anchored by Republican strategist Mike Murphy — is certain to hammer O’Brien down the line. And she’d be better off introducing herself to voters than letting Murphy do it for her. While the details of Romney’s campaign remain a mystery, Murphy’s record is well known. He has a flair for innovation and theatricality. During the 2000 presidential campaign, for example, he orchestrated Senator John McCain’s wildly popular "Straight Talk Express" bus tour through New Hampshire. He also helped design a devastating ad for Oliver North’s 1994 Senate campaign against Chuck Robb, featuring the tagline, "Why can’t Chuck Robb tell the truth?"
Already Romney has tried to pin the blame for the state’s fiscal crisis on O’Brien. During his convention speech he lumped O’Brien in with legislative leaders like Birmingham, who actually set the budget. During an interview, O’Brien scoffs at the criticism and counters that Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom, who worked for former treasurer Joe Malone, "was part of the team that brought you the theft of $10 million" — a reference to the treasury-embezzlement scam she uncovered upon taking over from Malone. But for the most part, this feistiness hasn’t been visible out on the trail. (Fehrnstrom, who declines to answer O’Brien’s critique, fires back that O’Brien "calls herself the state’s chief financial officer and yet claims she has nothing to do with the state’s finances.")
Then again, the O’Brien campaign may have its reasons for playing things close to the vest. It may want to fly under the radar. During her talk on Saturday, O’Brien noted in an aside that "front-runner status ... means all of a sudden I’m pulling darts out of my back." But the longer she goes without getting her message out to the public, the greater the possibility that someone — or something — else will do it for her. The Boston Globe, for example, has already run a string of stories chipping away at O’Brien. On March 27, the paper detailed how her stance had shifted from anti-abortion to pro-choice during the course of her political career. On April 26, the paper made more hay of the issue, reporting that her positions on gun control and the environment had shifted as well. Both the Associated Press and the Globe published stories in the wake of Friday’s breakfast forum about O’Brien’s claim that she supported an income-tax rollback tied to economic triggers — even though she apparently never made her views known publicly when the statewide ballot question was being debated back in 2000. By themselves, these stories may not mean much; the essence of them, after all, is that O’Brien, like many candidates, has moved leftward over time. But taken as a whole, they’re still less than flattering. Imagine what someone like Murphy — or even more workaday campaigners like her Democratic opponents — could do with them.
Despite stories such as these and Romney’s entry into the race, O’Brien’s campaign manager, Dwight Robson, stresses the benefits of the conservative plan. "[Scott] Harshbarger had it right in ’98 when he said it was a marathon, not a sprint," says Robson, remembering the last gubernatorial campaign he worked on. (Harshbarger lost a hotly contested battle to Governor Paul Cellucci.) "To some extent that may also describe the campaign to date — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You’ve got to put the pieces in place."
But the O’Brien campaign may be focusing on the pieces to the exclusion of the whole. To be sure, many of these "pieces," as Robson puts it, have been crucial. Take fundraising. O’Brien first decided in March 2001 to try running for governor as a Clean Elections candidate. Doing so would not only provide her with more than $2 million in public funds, it would also free her up to spend vital campaign hours doing what she does best (as evidenced by the Waltham event): meeting voters. Last fall, as it became clear that the state legislature, under House Speaker Tom Finneran’s leadership, would not fund the Clean Elections Law, O’Brien abandoned her plans. At the time, she had $800,000 in the bank, as compared to Birmingham’s $2.8 million (see "Collateral Damage," News and Features, November 8, 2001). Since then, O’Brien has raised around $1.2 million, bringing her total to about $2 million.
Then there was her performance at the Democratic caucuses in February, where O’Brien’s team kept pace with Birmingham’s by taking roughly as many, or possibly even more, delegates than Birmingham. Internal counts by both campaigns show that each won roughly 1200 delegates, but we won’t know the exact results until the delegates actually vote at the convention in June. Regardless, pre-caucus conventional wisdom held that the Birmingham campaign, backed by labor, had the insider-muscle advantage and would easily dominate the delegate process. Indeed, if it weren’t for Reich’s electrifying caucus performance, in which he swept Grossman in Brookline and cut into O’Brien’s support in such progressive strongholds as Northampton, O’Brien’s fine performance would have attracted much more notice.
Finally, members of O’Brien’s team claim that her numbers are up slightly in polls they have conducted — numbers which may or may not be borne out by the 29 percent she received in a recent Birmingham campaign survey. Birmingham’s camp contends this represents a drop for O’Brien — noting that she had the support of 31 percent of those polled by the same consultant in December 2001. But both numbers compare favorably with the 12 percent she received in a January Boston Globe poll.
If Romney had not forced Swift out of the race, these accomplishments would have put O’Brien in a favorable position to win both the Democratic nomination and the ultimate victory in November. But a recent Boston Herald poll shows her lagging 11 points behind Romney. Which raises the question: is the O’Brien campaign missing the forest for the trees? As long as she avoids going after Romney, O’Brien’s focus on incremental (albeit necessary) goals such as success in the Democratic caucuses may set her up to win the battles — only to lose the war.