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The Massachusetts Democratic Convention looms as the biggest political test for gubernatorial hopeful Martha Coakley since an ill-fated U.S. Senate campaign against Republican Scott Brown more than four years ago.
Analysts say anything less than a solid showing by the current attorney general at next weekend's state convention could signal lingering doubts among party insiders. After Coakley's upset loss in the special election following the death of Democratic icon Edward Kennedy, she won a lightly contested re-election, and polling has shown she remains a popular public figure in Massachusetts and the early front-runner to succeed outgoing Gov. Deval Patrick.
State Treasurer Steven Grossman, business executive Joseph Avellone, former federal health care administrator Don Berwick and former Homeland Security official Juliette Kayyem are also running and counting on their share of support from the 6,000 delegates scheduled to gather in Worcester.
While the top vote-getter will emerge as the party's endorsed candidate, others need to collect at least 15 percent of the delegates to advance to the September primary.
In an interview, Coakley said finishing first was not a major priority and she was confident of leaving the convention well-positioned for the primary. Her campaign, she added, has worked hard to avoid mistakes that helped doom her Senate campaign.
"I think from the beginning we knew that question would be asked, rightfully so," Coakley said. "This is a different race, this is a different time."
Maurice Cunningham, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, said Coakley's biggest goal should be reassuring party leaders who remain uneasy about her campaigning skills and ability to connect with voters.
"She wants to show them she is not the fumbler that she was in 2010," he said.
Cunningham views Grossman as most likely to win the convention endorsement. A former Democratic National Committee chairman, Grossman has deep ties within the party and has outpaced all gubernatorial candidates in fundraising so far.
Grossman, however, has lagged behind Coakley in early public opinion polls that suggest many voters are still largely unfamiliar with him.
The convention stakes are higher for Avellone, Berwick and Kayyem. While all three have said they expect to achieve the 15 percent threshold and advance to the primary, simple math dictates that one or two could fall short.
Berwick's call for a single-payer health insurance system has helped him make significant inroads with some of the party's more liberal members. He's also the only Democrat calling for repeal of the state's casino gambling law.
Kayyem is viewed by many as a potential rising star within the party and has been the subject of speculation about possible convention floor maneuvering by representatives of other candidates who might gain advantage by having her on - or off - the primary ballot.
Avellone has positioned himself as the most fiscally moderate Democrat, vowing not to raise broad-based taxes and opposing indexing of the gasoline tax. He's also the only candidate to openly criticize the 15 percent rule, saying it could keep qualified candidates off the primary ballot and cause disaffection among voters.
State Sen. Thomas McGee, chairman of the state party, said the long-standing rule is a fair and reasonable threshold for candidates.
Regardless of how many candidates ultimately qualify for the ballot, McGee said he expects Democrats to emerge from the convention on strong footing.
"Voters know we are the party moving the state forward," McGee said.
Charlie Baker, who was endorsed by Republicans at the party's convention in March, will face Mark Fisher, a tea party member, in the GOP primary.
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