EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 19, 2007

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

By Edward Mason , Staff writer

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."

Scott Ferson, a Donoghue spokesman, acknowledged the campaign's message has become more pointed and that it is directed at Tsongas. He said that is normal as a race nears the finish line.

"The campaign has evolved to legitimately point out those (different) experiences," Ferson said. "It's clear to us this has evolved into a two-person race with stark contrasts in experience."

Finegold, meantime, has focused his attention on churning out policy papers and concentrating on talking issues. While some of his exchanges in debates have been critical of his opponents, Finegold has sought to focus on what he wants to do and not attacking his rivals.

Speaking after a Lawrence debate, Finegold said that was the sort of campaign he wants to run. His manager, David Riordan, affirmed that in a recent interview.

"It's the person Barry is," Riordan said. "It's the kind of campaign he wanted to run, on issues and ideas and not partisan bickering."

Strategy-less strategies?

Indeed, all of the campaigns say their candidates aren't embracing these ways of presenting themselves as part of a campaign strategy. They say the candidates are just being themselves.

That may be part true. Marsh said campaigns do work to develop their candidate's personalities. But it is the real personality that eventually shines through, she said.

That's how the Eldridge campaign explains its candidate's performance at the race's first televised debate. At the Aug. 9 New England Cable News debate, Eldridge proposed increasing the federal gasoline tax by at least 10 cents per gallon, a proposal his candidates jumped on.

Eldridge has said making fossil fuels more expensive for large users, like SUV owners, will lead to conservation and not hurt middle-class families. Jeremy Wade, Eldridge's manager, said the Acton Democrat's positions aren't calculated.

"With a candidate like Jamie, it's clear where he stands," Wade said. "The type of voter (he appeals to) seeks change: people that want to see someone go down there and stand up for progressive values and not be afraid to say so."

Similarly, Wilmington Rep. James Miceli has joked at forums about being seated to the right of his rivals. And he's taken positions that seem tailor-made for more conservative parts of the district. At last week's WCVB-TV debate, Miceli said Congress should reverse the "anchor baby" provision that allows people here illegally to give birth to children who become U.S. citizens.

Recent polls suggest it's Tsongas' race to lose. Dick Howe, register of deeds for Northern Middlesex County, has blogged on the race from the start. He said Tsongas' move to quickly be perceived as the front-runner could backfire.

"I've talked to women who resent she's been anointed the front-runner by the women's groups when there's another woman in the race," Howe said. "Inevitability, 'I'm the front-runner' has the potential of boomeranging."