EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Merrimack Valley

August 19, 2007

5th Congressional District race: Strategy - or lack thereof - says much about candidate

BOSTON - Niki Tsongas is the front-runner who learned the ways of Washington at her husband's side. Eileen Donoghue is the woman with experience.

Barry Finegold is the issues-candidate who's above the partisan fray. Jamie Eldridge is the straight-talking progressive. And Jim Miceli is the conservative most in touch with the district.

The way the candidates want you to think of them is an important part of campaign strategy. With about three weeks to go before election day in the 5th Congressional District race, the question now is which candidate's persona is resonating most with voters.

A recent WBZ-TV 4 poll showed Tsongas with the support of 38 percent of those surveyed, 22 points ahead of her nearest rival, Lowell City Councilor Eileen Donoghue. All of Tsongas' opponents in the race, however, say polls showing her ahead are flawed and that they believe the race is considerably closer.

Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist, said Tsongas' poll performance demonstrates that the way her campaign has framed her is working - so far.

"The reality is Niki Tsongas' campaign was able to define the race first," Marsh said. "And they defined it to its advantage before others could define the race or her; and it's a strategy that every campaign wants."

Tsongas was able to do that in part by references, explicit and tacit, to her late husband, Paul Tsongas, who held the 5th District seat in the 1970s. But she also was able to very early on roll out a series of endorsements, from local politicians and national women's groups, that gave her the front-runner veneer early on.

She also was quick to tout fundraising totals that showed people were willing to invest in her.

"She was able to reinforce (the front-runner) perception with fundraising and advertising," Marsh said. "That's the big difference."

Modifying tactics

Donoghue, the Lowell city councilor, spent the early days of her campaign talking up her experience as an elected official. She rolled out extensive policy proposals.

But that has changed in recent weeks as Donoghue has worked to sharpen her message. Buoyed by internal polls suggesting that the race is between Tsongas and Donoghue, Donoghue has stressed her qualifications.

A recent Donoghue mailing appears to be from Tsongas. It asks, "Does experience have a last name? Yes, and that name is Donoghue."

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