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Democratic candidates hoping to land a spot on September's primary ballot are entering a critical stage of their campaigns as party activists begin meeting in small caucuses across the state this weekend.
The caucuses will continue for the next month with the goal of electing 3,889 delegates and 1,525 alternates to attend the Massachusetts Democratic Convention in Worcester in June.
The selection process is key to the political hopes of candidates who must win the backing of at least 15 percent of convention delegates to get their name on the Democratic primary ballot.
Veteran Democrats like Attorney General Martha Coakley and state Treasurer Steve Grossman - both of whom are running for governor - should have no problem pulling in more than enough delegates than needed.
But the 15 percent threshold will prove more daunting for lesser-known candidates, including Newton pediatrician Don Berwick, former federal Homeland Security official Juliette Kayyem and former Wellesley Selectman Joseph Avellone - each of whom is also seeking the governor's office.
If they don't reach the threshold, their gubernatorial hopes will be cut short.
That urgency explains the focus candidates have placed on trying to round up the backing of local party activists. That means not just traveling around the state to meet face-to-face with activists but also appealing to potential delegates through emails, on candidate websites and through social media sites like Twitter.
Those online efforts are critical, given the sheer number of caucuses - more than 500 from Feb. 8 to March 2 - making it impossible for candidates to attend each, though most Democratic candidates are planning to attend as many caucuses as they can starting Saturday.
To help guarantee they get the 15 percent needed at the June convention, candidates try to encourage their supporters to run as delegates.
Kayyem, for example, is urging her backers not only to run to become delegates but to also recruit other supporters to form a "Kayyem slate" to help improve her chances of electing enough pledged delegates.
State Democratic Party Chairman Tom McGee said he feels good about the party's chances in this year's elections. In Massachusetts, Democrats already hold every statewide office, every congressional seat and overwhelming majorities in the state House and Senate.
"The unprecedented number of qualified candidates we have is a testament to the deep talent pool of Massachusetts Democrats and to the issues and ideas we as Democrats put forward," McGee said in a statement announcing the caucuses.
The caucuses are open to all registered Democrats in Massachusetts. Delegates apportioned to each ward and town must be equally divided between men and women.
Republicans just recently wrapped more than 300 caucuses statewide. The 15 percent rule also applies to the GOP, which is having its convention March 22 in Boston.
It's not just gubernatorial candidates who are keeping an eye on the Democratic caucuses. There are several other crowded races for statewide office. Candidates in those contests must also clear the 15 percent threshold to get on the ballot.
There are three Democratic candidates running for attorney general (Maura Healey, Harold Naughton and Warren Tolman), three for state treasurer (Tom Conroy, Barry Finegold and Deb Goldberg) and five for lieutenant governor (Leland Cheung, James Arena-DeRosa, Jonathan Edwards, Steve Kerrigan and Mike Lake).
While only registered Democrats from each ward or town will be allowed to vote for delegates, the caucuses are open to the public.