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Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Juliette Kayyem is making the rounds at a living room meet-and-greet in a leafy section of Fall River.
"Ah! Nice to see you," she says, shaking hands and posing for photographs.
Kayyem, a former homeland security official in the administrations of Gov. Deval Patrick and President Obama, is here to woo about a dozen delegates to this month's state Democratic convention.
Like all the candidates, she must win at least 15 percent of delegates to earn a spot on the Democratic primary ballot in September. And speaking to the Fall River group, seated on a couch and chairs pulled in from the dining room, Kayyem talks about climate change and health care.
But she also tries to steer them away from the frontrunner in the Democratic primary, Attorney General Martha Coakley, and the other party stalwart in the race, Treasurer Steve Grossman.
"There's no next in line," she says. "There's no, 'We've known them forever, let's vote for them.' This is a fight for the Democratic Party. And this is a fight for Massachusetts."
It is the message of the outsider. And outsiders have fared reasonably well in Massachusetts politics of late.
In 2006, little-known lawyer Patrick won the governor's race. Four years later, obscure Republican state Sen. Scott Brown scored an upset victory in a U.S. Senate special election. In 2012, Harvard University professor Elizabeth Warren ousted him.
But in a recent WBUR poll, all three of the outsiders in the gubernatorial race — Kayyem, former Obama administration health care official Donald Berwick and Joseph Avellone, an executive at a biopharmaceutical research firm — registered in the low single digits.
Their early struggles make for a sharp contrast with the two most prominent Democratic outsiders of recent vintage — Patrick and Warren — who caught fire months before Election Day.
But Democratic political consultant Jim Spencer, who is not involved in any of the gubernatorial campaigns, said the comparison is misguided. "I know everybody uses those as, kind of, allegories — Patrick and Warren," he said. "But they're so different."
Warren, he noted, had a national profile as a consumer advocate and the support of progressive activists all over the country. Patrick, he said, was "new and exciting" and was aiming to be the state's first black governor.
John Walsh, the chief architect of Patrick's insurgent campaign, added that the political environment was quite different when Patrick began his run for governor in 2005.
"We had 16 years of Republican governors," Walsh said. And Democrats, he added, were in a state of high anxiety after President George W. Bush defeated John Kerry to win a second term.
Without the same hunger for change, it could take longer for outsider candidates to catch on. But with the convention set for June 13-14, time is running short in the crucial first phase of the campaign.
Kayyem's campaign, at the Fall River event, counted four pick-ups in its push for the roughly 725 to 825 delegates required — depending on the turnout at the convention — to meet the 15 percent threshold for making the ballot.
"Oh, she was great," said Augusta Pelletier, an anesthesiologist and former city councilor who attended the gathering. "I loved what she said. She may have my vote."
Dave Dennis, the former city councilor who hosted the event, was also impressed with Kayyem. But Dennis, who's invited all the Democratic candidates to appear at coffee klatches in his home, will not be voting for Kayyem at the convention.
He and his wife are backing Grossman, who's spent years cultivating party regulars. "He talked to us quite awhile ago," said Dennis.
Grossman and Coakley, longtime party leaders, enjoy plenty of advantages heading into the convention.
But Berwick, the pediatrician and former Obama health care official, is counting on support from the liberal wing of the party to get him on the ballot.
He opposes casinos and supports single-payer health care — positions that helped him secure the endorsement of grassroots advocacy group Progressive Massachusetts a few weeks ago.
In a speech on the State House steps, accepting the endorsement, he focused on the social justice message that has animated his campaign.
"Tonight, there'll be 3,000 kids hungry, there'll be 4,000 families homeless and there's only one right number for that kind of inequality," he said. "That number is zero — no hunger, no homelessness."
The WBUR poll shows Berwick is a little-known figure among the broader public. But he insists he has momentum.
Berwick raised more money than any of his competitors in the first two weeks of May. His campaign says his network of volunteers increased fivefold in the last two months.
Joe McCannon, a longtime Berwick aide, said the candidate will "comfortably" clear the 15 percent threshold at the convention.
"But what we really want to do," he said, "is we want to demonstrate just how much momentum Don has by having an even bigger result. So we're shooting for a significant number of delegates standing with us."
The Berwick campaign, which operates out of a squat Cambridge office behind a children's gymnastics center, is counting on a strong showing at the convention to boost his standing with the broader electorate.
The Kayyem camp, which voices confidence it will get the 15 percent required to land on the ballot, is also hoping for a post-convention bounce.
Avellone's campaign declines to discuss its delegate count. And party insiders say they would be surprised if he got to 15 percent.
But the candidate, who has pitched himself as the moderate in the race, has built pockets of support in the Worcester area and beyond. And he's been ubiquitous on the campaign trail.
"I think the strategy is really shoe leather for me," Avellone said during a recent appearance at Tito's Turkey Fry, the annual block party and political schmoozefest hosted by Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson in Dorchester. "I've been in probably around 150 cities and towns, some of them scores of times, so I've built up a grassroots organization over time."
That organization will face its most important test yet — at the party convention — in less than two weeks.
This story aired on June 2, 2014.
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