SALEM — Martha Coakley had already made the rounds of the shady English courtyard behind the Salem Inn, sure to shake hands with each of the curious who had come to meet her in person. Now, she stood before the crowd and made her pitch: No one would work harder to earn their votes for governor. She had learned from her defeat in the 2010 Senate special election.
“It was not an easy loss for me,” Coakley said.
Where another candidate might have become emotional, Coakley did not — not then, and not as she told the crowd about her bipolar brother, who took his own life 16 years ago. The new Martha Coakley, the 2.0 version, may be willing to serve up select slices of her personal story, to trade vulnerabilities in handshakes as she reaches for another voter, then another, and another. But she is still Martha Coakley, clipped and competent as ever.
It’s the challenge both Coakley and the leading Republican contender for governor, Charlie Baker, face as they wage comeback campaigns — how to appear more personable.
Four years ago, both suffered defeats that threatened to define them. Baker came off as bitter and angry; Coakley, chilly and remote. This time around they are trying to get their temperatures just right. Coakley has turned the heat up for more personal interactions with voters. Baker has cooled off his excitability, reining in his gestures and toning down his rhetoric. Unlike the other candidates, Coakley and Baker are running from the image cast by past campaigns.
Intent on showcasing the personal, each has even publicly reflected on the trials of a vulnerable brother. Coakley released an uncommonly intimate video in which she speaks about her brother Edward’s suicide; Baker unveiled a spot in which his brother Alex tells of the candidate’s support when he told him he was gay.
Both are treading fine lines, knowing that voters find a calculated reinvention unbearably cheesy. Recall Al Gore’s adoption of earth tones.
“Voters respond to authenticity,” said Nancy Mathis, president and chief executive of First Take Communications, a Washington firm that works on public imaging and communications for Democrats. “They can really smell packaging a mile off.”
At the Rainbow Child Development Center in Worcester, Baker folded his 6-foot-6-inch frame onto the floor, where he sat, nearly eye-level with a bunch of toddlers. They weren’t sure what to make of him.
But Baker, a father of three, hammed it up as he read a book, drawing the kids into an enthusiastic chant of the story’s refrain: “The bear snores on!”
Baker is prone to animated exuberance. A 1998 Globe Magazine profile of the wunderkind of the Weld administration described his “geek charm, goofiness on a grand scale,” recalling a State House meeting at which he gesticulated so wildly, he smashed his watch crystal on the white board behind him.
He has not always made people feel at ease, though. The big guy with the big ideas had a big problem with his body language, aides realized after his 2010 gubernatorial loss.
Mindful that lively movements from a larger-than-life candidate can look intimidating, particularly on television, aides have used body coaching to rein in Baker’s gestures. The guy who played a raucous air guitar at his 2010 campaign kickoff has been taught to keep his hands closer to his body and away from his face.
“I think some of this sense of him being an aggressive or angry person last time through was not only verbal but nonverbal communication,” said one Baker campaign adviser. “That is certainly something that we are paying attention to.”
The team has made a “very conscious effort in the campaign to not repeat the tone” of his last campaign, the adviser said, in part to reflect the changing times. Four years ago, the economy was floundering, the Tea Party was rising, and people were concerned about the state’s direction. Baker was arguing for a change in leadership and yes, that sometimes sounded argumentative.
Now, the adviser said, “People think things are getting better and you need to tap into that optimism.”
Baker’s 2010 campaign mantra — “Had enough?” — has morphed into a boosterish, “Let’s Be Great, Massachusetts.”
Still, the famously analytical former chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care often looks intense. At Dorchester’s Epiphany School, Baker questioned a staffer with his jaw locked, his focus fierce. From a distance, he might have been scolding him.
“Charlie is 100 percent there in the moment. He may not be remembering to grin at all times,” said another Baker aide. “I don’t even know how you would teach someone to change the way their face was.”
There’s a reason pollsters often ask voters which candidate they would prefer to have a beer with: Likability matters disproportionately in politics.
“If people don’t like you, they’re not going to vote for you,” said Dave Carney, a Republican political consultant who has worked with President George H.W. Bush, Governor Rick Perry of Texas, and the Republican who hopes to succeed Perry as governor.
Unless, he adds, “you’re running against someone who’s worse than you are.”
On the trail, voters are often struck by how likable Coakley seems — as if they were expecting the campaign caricature of her from 2010.
“Meeting her is different than seeing her on TV,” said Brenda Neugeboren, a semiretired Taunton Democrat who was among nine voters who met Coakley at Coffee Milano one recent afternoon. “I see a very personable, warm, enjoyable person to talk with.”
A polished professional, if not a politician who inspires great passions, Coakley suffers from comparison to the campaign charisma all-stars recently elected in Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick and Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Doug Rubin, who worked with both Patrick and Warren before signing on as Coakley’s senior campaign adviser, uses a baseball analogy to defend Coakley’s style.
“I look at it like you have Jacoby Ellsbury, who’s just a natural talent and becomes a superstar,” Rubin said of the former Red Sox player. “Then you have the Dustin Pedroias — who don’t have all the natural skills but work their ass off, gut it out, and become superstars. I kind of look at Martha in that respect. She’s worked hard.”
Hard work has been a theme of Coakley’s campaign, in conscious reconciliation for her anemic effort in 2010. That year, she scoffed at the suggestion that she was taking the Senate election for granted, famously asking whether she should be, like her gregarious opponent, Scott Brown, “standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?”
This time, she launched her campaign with a three-day tour of cities and towns that notably wrapped up at Fenway Park. She goes to cozy meet-and-greets in houses and small-group settings. Her team has invested heavily in its grass-roots organization, believing familiarity will breed affection.
“People will see her for who she is and not rely solely on TV ads against her,” said one campaign adviser.
Unscripted events bring their own challenges, though. When Coakley paid a visit to the Cape Verdean Association of Brockton in June, she got an earful from voters who think their city’s needs are being neglected by Beacon Hill politicians who can’t see beyond Boston.
“When they get elected, they forget about us,” said program manager Monica Tavares.
Faced with an adversarial situation, Coakley seized the opportunity to talk about her fights for fairness as attorney general and her commitment to issues like domestic violence. Her aides have encouraged her to make connections this way, to articulate the values and motivation that led her to run for office in the first place.
“You can turn the fight that you fought into the kind of story that tells the kind of person you are,” added Carney, the GOP consultant, who also advises candidates to dig down deep to amp up their warmth.
“Passion is not a commodity that you can get at Walmart,” Carney said. “Everybody has it, but you’ve got to find it — why do you get up every day and do this?”
After meeting Coakley in Brockton, Tavares came away impressed, but noncommittal. “I feel more confident. Just the fact that she came and listened,” she said. “Everybody deserves a second chance.”
Which is, in the end, the way a lot of voters think, said Mathis, the image-maker. She sounded a note of optimism for both Baker and Coakley: Americans love a political comeback narrative.
“We like to see them trip,” she said, “but we’re the first ones to extend the hand to help them up.”