FALL RIVER, Mass. -- Not long ago, John R. Silber shared this bit of advice with the nation's elderly: "When you have had a long life and you're ripe, it's time to go."
Not the stuff on which many political pros would suggest launching a campaign.
Nevertheless, Mr. Silber -- the cantankerous academic who punched out a national reputation as president of Boston University -- is running for governor of Massachusetts, competing to take the reins of the state's sagging economy when the commonwealth's present chief executive, the much-reviled Michael S. Dukakis, leaves office.
Hard to believe as it may seem, such "Silber shockers" have attracted thousands to his unlikely crusade. Local pundits who sneered seven months ago when the 64-year-old Kant scholar launched his quest now hedge their bets when talk turns to his chances of winning.
"You bet the voters are angry," Mr. Silber barks.
"My 'Silber shockers' are nothingbut telling the truth."
Of course, this kind of strategy means that the candidate has to spend a good deal of time explaining himself. Which is just what Mr. Silber set out to do one recent morning in the community room of the Cardinal Medeiros retirement home here, before several dozen ripe-looking senior citizens.
The group received him politely, though some expressed open skepticism about his intentions. "That bit about being ripe didn't go over too good here," said Wilma Marshall, an 86-year-old retired seamstress.
And so, for half an hour, Mr. Silber lectured his audience about the obligations of the state to care for those who cannot care for themselves, then segued into a discourse on the roles families must play in caring for one another. Before long, he had told the story about how he helped save the life of his aged grandmother.
By this time, heads had begun to nod sympathetically. And when he railed against the state for failing to pay its Medicare bills on time, Mr. Silber appeared to have won a new group of converts.
"He says what a lot of people think," said Vinnie del Grazia, a retired rubber worker and head of a local senior citizens' activist group. "And even if he makes a mistake from time to time, that's OK, too, because people would rather have an honest governor who makes an honest mistake than someone whose always fibbing and telling you what you want to hear.
"I think the elderly are going to help put Silber over the top."
Whatever the outcome, the raceappears to be close.
Mr. Silber is competing against two other candidates for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in a primary to be held Sept. 18. Most polls say he is trailing the front-runner for the nomination -- former state attorney general and political veteran Francis X. Bellotti -- by a slight margin. By almost all accounts, Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy, the candidate whose political fortunes have been most closely tied to Mr. Dukakis, is running a distant third.
The eventual nominee will be the odds-on favorite in November over the probable GOP candidate, state legislator Steve Pierce.
Ms. Murphy, a lawyer with long experience in state government, was the heir apparent at the start of the year. But a weakened regional economy and the state's worsening fiscal crisis have long since soured voters on the Dukakis administration and, by extension, her candidacy.
Ms. Murphy has taken care to distance herself from the Dukakis administration. "It's been an albatross," she concedes.
Part of Ms. Murphy's strategy is to wait and see whether Mr. Silber self-destructs.
So far, however, he has managed to emerge from each self-made controversy unscathed -- or at least has been able to patch up the damage before it causes him real trouble.
"When he's calm, he's reasonedand persuasive," explains Dennis Hale, a political scientist at Boston College. "When he gets worked up, he sputters, and the media makes the mistake of assuming that because he's a gubernatorial candidate, the resulting string of disconnected clauses is a position paper, when in fact he's just sputtering.
"But people respond to that because they've been reduced to a kind of sputtering rage about what's happened to things around here and the way the place has been run."
In his sputtering mode, Mr. Silber has characterized his university's English department as a "damned matriarchy," inexplicably questioned Gloria Steinem's fitness for the Supreme Court and wondered aloud why the working-class city of Lowell attracted Cambodians.
More recently, he accused Ms. Murphy of effectively condoning infanticide for her support of a bill that would liberalize the state's abortion law, prompting the outraged lieutenant governor call for his withdrawal from the race.
It's not clear whether any of these comments have hurt Mr. Silber. In the week after the "ripe" comment, for example, polls said he was holding the lead by a narrow margin.
Later, Mr. Bellotti launched a barrage of television ads accusing Mr. Silber of wanting to ration health care, and Mr. Silber slipped into second place. Of late, however, Mr. Bellotti's negative ratings appear to have increased in the wake of acounterattack by the Silber camp intimating that Mr. Bellotti is corrupt and has ties to organized crime.
If Mr. Silber does win, friends and enemies wonder what kind of governor he will be. When he arrived at Boston University 20 years ago, the struggling school catered mostly to commuters. Now, the university is richer and has evolved into an institution of national standing -- a transformation on which Mr. Silber has built his campaign.
"I have never been invited to play with a toy that wasn't broken: I was invited to Boston University," he said. "That place was in shambles and at the verge of very serious financial collapse. What I have learned is that you can move into a crisis and use the crisis to make radical change in order to transform the process into an opportunity."
At BU, however, a polarized faculty voted twice to expel him, and critics say that Mr. Silber purged the faculty and the Board of Trustees of those who did not agree with his conservative convictions, replacing them with hand-picked supporters.
Mr. Silber contended that he only sought to raise academic standards, "and some people just didn't likethat."
He also said he eschews ideology. "Nobody who's pursuing the truth can be an ideologue, because an ideologue has a predetermined conclusion and he adjusts all the facts, the figures, the arguments to fit that preconclusion," he said.
Indeed, Mr. Silber's positions seem to criss-cross the ideological map.
He is for the death penalty in limited circumstances, though he thinks its application is racist. He favors abortion rights, but he is against legislation pending in the Massachusetts House that would liberalize the state's abortion law. He says he will balance the state budget without raising taxes, though he has campaigned against a tax rollback referendum to be on the November ballot.
Less certain is how his convictions will be expressed in the hurly-burly of state politics -- a challenge that repeatedly confounded Mr. Dukakis, a professional politician.
"He finds it very difficult to resist the temptation to draw a line in the sand and challenge people," said Martin Linsky, a former assistant minority leader in the state House of Representatives who is on the faculty of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "I don't think he understands how difficult dealing with the Legislature would be."
Yet the prospect of four combative years on Beacon Hill, on which the Statehouse sits amid the brick row houses of old Boston, does not appear to have fazed Mr. Silber's supporters. Mr. Hale of Boston College thinks it won't deter a lot of other people who are undecided about their choice and on whose votes the primary election will hinge.
"There are a fair number of people who will vote for him and won't like it very much," he said.
"But they'll shut the curtain in the voting booth and they'll think about Evelyn Murphy, and then they'll think about Michael Dukakis, and they'll think about Frank Bellotti and how he's been around forever.
"Then they'll just do it. They'll vote for Silber, but they won't tell anybody."