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Even before primary, GOP PAC takes aim at Coakley

Less than two weeks before the state primary, the general election campaign for governor has already begun.

A deep-pocketed Republican super PAC is poised to unleash an attack ad against Democratic front-runner Martha Coakley on statewide television Thursday. The 30-second spot paints the attorney general as out of touch and takes aim at her for incorrectly guessing the state’s per-gallon gasoline tax during a pop quiz on a TV show.

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The ad, from Commonwealth Future Independent Expenditure Political Action Committee, marks the first super PAC volley against Coakley, who is leading her Democratic rivals in public polling. And analysts said that, depending on how much money the group spends to air the spot, it could mark a ratcheting up of the November gubernatorial race even before the ballot is set in the Sept. 9 primary.

“It’s throwing a grenade into the Coakley camp and forcing them to deal with this issue, this theme that she’s out of touch,” Massachusetts Republican consultant Jason Kauppi said.

He said a significant ad campaign from the PAC could prompt Coakley or her allies to begin advertising to rebut the attacks.

Indeed, after the super PAC ad was posted online Wednesday, the Coakley campaign released a Web video — which a Coakley aide said the campaign was mulling airing on TV — attacking Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker.

The anti-Coakley super PAC spot is backed by ominous music and narrated by a woman. It includes a clip from Coakley’s May appearance on the WCVB-TV (Channel 5) program “On the Record,” which regularly quizzes political guests.

It shows Coakley’s response to a question about the state’s current per-gallon gas tax.

“Uhh,” Coakley grimaces, before guessing, “10 cents.”

The ad plays the sound of a buzzer.

“The correct answer: 24 cents,” the narrator says. “Coakley doesn’t even know how much we pay in gas taxes, but she does support raising them. And Coakley wants the gas tax to increase automatically, so politicians can’t be held accountable.”

The narrator calls Coakley “out of touch.”

As part of a controversial transportation funding package passed into law last year, the state’s gas tax was increased by 3 cents to 24 cents per gallon. Under current law, the tax is set to be linked yearly beginning in 2015 to the Consumer Price Index, which means it will go up as consumer goods and services get more expensive.

But a ballot initiative on the November ballot will allow voters to eliminate the requirement that the gas tax be adjusted annually for inflation. Coakley has said she opposes repeal.

Coakley’s campaign manager, Tim Foley, said in a statement that the gas tax law has wide support.

“What the special-interest-funded super PAC who funded this ad fails to tell the public is that the gas tax plan is supported by chambers of commerce, taxpayer groups, and economists because it will fund much-needed infrastructure projects and spur economic growth across the state,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the super PAC, Jamie Rhoades, said the ad “is supported by a substantial ad buy and will air statewide.”

Asked about the group’s plans going forward, Rhoades had no comment, noting only that the ad is the third that the PAC has released.

The first two spots from the group supported Baker, lauding his leadership, and were aimed at boosting his prospects among female voters, whom he lost by a substantial margin in his unsuccessful 2010 bid to unseat Governor Deval Patrick.

Although the Coakley ad is a negative spot, it could be directed at a similar part of the electorate.

Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh said the ad appeared focused on making Coakley less appealing to “lower-middle class, blue-collar workers, in particular lower-income single women who feel the impact of the gas tax.”

Marsh said the spot also looked to be a play to move voters aligned with Treasurer Steve Grossman, one of Coakley’s two Democratic opponents, to back Baker and to paint Coakley as a tax-and-spend liberal.

“This is a way to try to define Martha Coakley, but also to cherrypick those groups of voters any Republican who wants to win statewide needs to cobble together,” Marsh said.

The super PAC airing the ad is backed, in part, by the Republican Governors Association, an extremely well-financed national group that helps elect GOP governors.

Don Berwick, a former federal health care official, is the third Democrat running for governor. Republican Mark Fisher, a businessman and political novice, is vying with Baker for the GOP nomination. Also running for governor are three independent candidates: Evan Falchuk, Jeff McCormick, and Scott Lively.

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.
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