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In second run for governor, Charlie Baker in touch with lighter side

Charlie Baker got a hug at the Big E fair in West Springfield.

Baker campaign

Charlie Baker got a hug at the Big E fair in West Springfield.

He has been photographed, along with his wife, hugging a man in a life-sized rodent costume. He has tweeted, while wearing Mardi Gras beads, about meatloaf. And last week he hopped behind the bar at the Eire Pub, the Adams Corner institution paid homage by generations of politicians, to pull a few pints before the Red Sox game.

Charlie Baker is running for governor, again, but nowhere near the way he ran in 2010.

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The venture capitalist, former health care executive, and erstwhile whiz kid of Republican administrations walked away from his loss to Governor Deval Patrick with an admittedly bruised ego.

But beyond that, what appears to have stuck with Baker is the message he heard afterward from close friends: He had not been himself.

Tim Buckley/Charlie Baker Campaign

Charlie Baker, who is trying to display a more footloose style in his second run for governor, raised a glass at the Eire Pub in Dorchester last week.

“I did talk to somebody after the race who said to me, and again it was a friend: “Charlie, you behaved like you had to have the answer to every question at every moment at every time, and that’s really not the way you work. You’re much better at hearing people out, driving around and chewing on stuff, and eventually coming up with a solution.’ ”

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In atonement, and perhaps out of political necessity, Baker is running this time in a more footloose style, seemingly determined not to project the grimness that even close advisers admit oozed from his last campaign.

The day after he visited the Eire Pub, Baker stopped at George’s Cafe in Brockton, its walls decorated with cartoon drawings extolling the fistic exploits of Rocky Marciano. Jeanie Falcone, the local GOP state committee woman, had rounded up prospective supporters to meet with Baker in the function room, and there were more potential voters to greet at the bar.

In a gray fleece and black slacks, Baker talked to a City Council candidate about economic development and how the state can help bolster Brockton’s economy. Local aid, permitting and licensing, water infrastructure – what Baker’s old boss, former Governor William F. Weld, liked to call “the blocking and tackling of government.”

In his second gubernatorial bid, Baker has gained a veteran’s advantage, a familiarity with the state best acquired by driving around it and talking to people. That enables him to recount in George’s, for instance, how he met with Brockton High School students in 2010 and came away with a new understanding of how seriously the locals take their “City of Champions” reputation.

When he met a couple from North Attleborough, he name-checked Cafe Porto Bello, which he remembered from the last campaign. “Then, to the guy from Weymouth, I said ‘Niko’s.’ He said, ‘Niko’s?’ I said, ‘Yeah, Niko’s, it’s across from the Shell gas station.”

The second time around, for a candidate who cops to not possessing an innate feel for the campaign trail, is easier. He is equipped now with stats and facts about towns that provide entrée to conversations that otherwise might have started out stilted.

“Unless you’re a complete and utter natural, which I don’t think anybody would accuse me of, it just takes a while,” Baker said, standing outside George’s.

“I have data points, foodstuffs, and other assorted important things,” Baker says of his enriched arsenal.

David Forsberg, chief executive of Lutheran Social Services of New England and Baker’s former boss as state health and human services secretary under Weld, said the 2010 effort did not fully reveal Baker’s “light-hearted” side.

“There was a huge difference between people that interacted with him personally and how that translated into the more media-driven parts of the campaign,” Forsberg said. “Obviously, in a statewide campaign, you can’t shake every hand. The reality of the person didn’t catch up with the message.”

Not helping Baker three years ago was the contrast with Patrick’s relentlessly upbeat style on the hustings. While Baker opted for a “Had enough?” slogan and got dragged into a debate over whether homeless people should be required to show proof of residency to get access to shelters, Patrick talked up the pace of the state’s economic recovery.

Baker will face no such ebullient incumbent next year. This time, Forsberg said, “when he called and bounced this off of me, I said, ‘I am all in as long as you be yourself.’ ”

Part of Baker’s pitch this time around is that he will spend more time listening, “with the receiver on,” as he puts it. He has vowed to spend less time railing against Beacon Hill’s evils, more time hearing out others’ ideas.

That doesn’t mean Baker’s campaign is all pub crawls and tweets about cupcakes. Even if the set-jaw tone of his earlier attempt is gone, Baker’s inner policy wonk is never far from the goofy cut up.

In early campaign travels, he has heard feedback from town officials and business owners that has convinced him that the state can parcel out financial assistance more intelligently.

“This isn’t a policy pronouncement; it’s just a thought,” he cautioned, before outlining a fundamental restructuring of how Beacon Hill could distribute the funds at its disposal: from bond bills, the operating budget, and federal pass-through money. Through mutual consent agreements with municipalities tying the aid to specific goals, Baker mused, both local governments and the state could get more bang for the buck.

Such an overhaul would probably meet resistance at the State House, where lawmakers have grown comfortable with the current process. But it would also provide Baker with the reform cudgel that GOP governors have wielded in the past with great effectiveness.

The implementation of such a change is, of course, a ways off. Baker will need to contend with whichever Democrat emerges from a crowded primary. Attorney General Martha Coakley, too, has embarked on a bit of a reclamation crusade, focusing on the retail politicking that critics said was distressingly absent from her 2010 run for Senate. She launched her campaign by touring 19 municipalities, winding up by shaking hands outside Fenway Park.

Like Baker, Coakley is trying to take hard-learned lessons and turn them into a winning hand. Unlike Coakley, Baker has a public history of cutting loose. Former advisers still roll their eyes good naturedly at the memory of Baker vigorously wind-milling his arm while playing air guitar, or attempting to dance during parades.

Back inside George’s, Baker was at the bar. Its owner, Charlie Tartaglia, confesses to leaning Democratic, but he has helped Republicans before. He threw a fund-raiser once for Joe Malone, the former state treasurer, that drew 600 people.

Baker got a warm response from a young woman on a barstool, whose vote was sewn up when she learned Baker is a Republican. “When are the elections?” she asked.

Baker leaned in, his face close to hers. “November 2014,” he said. “November 2014.”

With much of the political world consumed by the Boston mayor’s race, these are the types of interactions 2014 candidates will subsist on for a while: pouring beers at the Eire Pub, interrupting people’s meals to say hello, posing for photos with people in costumes.

Baker acknowledges that he took some grief from friends about the rodent embrace, captured at the Big E fair in West Springfield last month and shared on his Twitter account.

But he professes a fatalism about the encounter that just as easily might apply to a second-time candidate’s willingness to relinquish whatever protective veneer he constructed last time, open his ears, and let the campaign come to him.

“The big rat comes up, what are you supposed to do?” Baker says. “Push it away?”

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at Jim.OSullivan@globe.com.
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