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Yvonne Abraham

Lessons learned, lessons lived for Martha Coakley

Martha Coakley attended a gathering earlier this week at a home in Weymouth.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Martha Coakley attended a gathering earlier this week at a home in Weymouth.

PEABODY — Standing before a stained glass window in a senior community chapel last week, Martha Coakley was wrapping up the umpteenth event of her primary campaign for governor.

“I’d love to have your consideration on Nov. 9,” she asked the 80 seniors seated in the pews, seemingly unaware she’d misspoken. A minute later, she asked for their votes again, citing the correct date — Sept. 9.

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You can’t blame Coakley for having November on her mind. Less than two weeks before the primary, the attorney general maintains the comfortable lead she has held from the start. But she has been careful not to look as if she’s taking this race for granted — something for which she was criticized during her failed US Senate run in 2010.

This year, Coakley has spent as much energy trying to outrun that memory as she has trying to beat her opponents, shaking hands across the state, asking for every vote.

As a Senate candidate, Coakley could be awkward, almost painful to watch. But she was at ease at Brooksby Village last week, joking and talkative, more confident. She shares more about herself now than she did before. When a resident asked her about unrest following the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., Coakley began her answer by talking about the early days of her marriage, when her husband was with the Cambridge police and she was Middlesex district attorney.

“If there was a murder in Cambridge, his pager would go off, then my pager would go off,” she said. She went on to say authorities in Ferguson made mistakes that would not have been made here.

Though she spoke of it some during her Senate run, Coakley has made the story of her brother Edward’s suicide central this time around. Diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder at 17, he was reluctant to seek help.

“Unfortunately, after my parents passed away now 22 years ago, Edward took his own life,” she said. “And my family lived with that stigma. . .” Her voice caught. “I just don’t think you should suffer in silence,” she said, her tone changing as she held back tears, battling a rare loss of composure. Then, recovering: “If I am governor, I will make sure that we provide . . . mental and behavioral health to every family.”

Coakley is putting a lot on the line. But there are some lines she is reluctant to cross. There are other ways to fritter away a lead besides appearing to take it for granted. Saying something edgy that alienates voters, for example. At Brooksby Village, she demonstrated an impressive command of the Commonwealth’s problems. She was less specific when it came to the more treacherous terrain of solutions.

Asked about her stance on environmental issues, she said she supports renewable energy and opposes the proposed Kinder Morgan gas pipeline across the state. But she stopped there, vowing, as she often does, to foster further inquiry, and healthy discussion.

No candidate worth her salt has all the answers, but sometimes she veers into dodge territory. Endorsed by a janitors union this week, Coakley declined to take a position on proposed cuts to MBTA janitor jobs, cuts the union has bitterly opposed.

That is unlikely to hurt her in a Democratic primary, where there is little daylight between candidates on the issues. It will not fly in a general election against Charlie Baker, the Republican who has made his own transformation since 2010 and is selling himself as a policy guy. She will need to take strong stands, and stick to them, setting caution aside.

If Coakley rises to that challenge, this likable, formidable candidate could be an unbeatable one.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.
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