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Thomas Farragher

Baker, Coakley need to run hard, not stumble at end

The next Massachusetts governor will be the candidate — either Charlie Baker (left) or Martha Coakley — who can deliver the sharpest message down the stretch, Tom Farragher writes.Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

She’s Martha. He’s Charlie. They’ve been addressing each other for months with an informality that belies a profound professional disapproval that staged smiles can no longer fully disguise.

With three weeks to go, they are essentially tied. The next Massachusetts governor will be the candidate who can deliver the sharpest message down the stretch and avoid the stumbles that so often characterize a campaign.

Baker’s message already has some crispness to it. He wants to be CEO. State government dominated by Democrats has led to dysfunction and corruption, he says. He’s got the goods, too.

Beacon Hill is a place where House speakers have a habit of morphing into common criminals, where the sitting speaker is known around the federal courthouse as Mr. Unindicted Coconspirator. So Baker’s message about balanced government has potency.

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In most states, Baker is a center-right Democrat. Here, where voters are used to electing Republican governors, he’s lusting after votes from blue-collar Democrats and even some of that party’s fat cats, like those who helped raise $200,000 for him the other night at a restaurant whose name I can’t pronounce and where a piece of fish costs 50 bucks. Amrheins must have been booked.

Coakley’s final appeal will be this: I’m on your side.

Like Baker’s, Coakley’s record of public service is impressive, and on the stump she is polished and confident. She insists, not terribly convincingly, that she isn’t handcuffed by her allegiance to Governor Deval Patrick and the litany of horribles that have spilled out of his administration as it nears its end.

When I spoke to her Thursday about the absence of a bumper-sticker message, she spoke rat-a-tat about her passion for everything from fixing the Department of Public Health to beefing up homeland security. Pithy? No.

She also said this: “Charlie Baker strikes me as someone who always looks at the bottom line. He sees figures. He sees numbers.’’ I see people, Coakley said.

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From someone who comes across too often as overly cautious, a convener of committees, that message has a precision that her policy smorgasbord doesn’t.

Baker needs work, too. He’s hired a body language coach and speaks in tones so soft and moderate that you half expect him to lower the lights and commence a reading of “Goodnight Moon.”

If he wants the women’s vote as badly as he says, he needs to disavow the super PAC ad that a pro-Baker group is running, accusing Coakley of failing to protect abused kids.

The ad might as well accuse Coakley, whose credentials here are solid, of sitting in the back of a van with a bag of candy, trying to lure children into danger. It’s beneath Baker — or should be — and it’s backfiring.

What they have in common is this: They have stood in election-night hotel ballrooms where balloons did not drop and the only comfort supporters found came from bow-tied bartenders.

“There are all these people out there who bet on me in 2010 and I let them down,’’ Baker told me after a campaign event in Plymouth. “And a lot of those folks came back in early in this race and said, ‘I don’t think you can win, but I like and admire you.’ . . . I owe it to those people and everybody else who made the decision to come out and support us to run as hard as I possibly can.’’

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Hours later at her Somerville headquarters, Coakley, her husband, Tom, at her side, struck a similar theme.

“I’ve been through races that have been tough,’’ she said. “I’ve been through a tough race in 2010. It’s not fun to lose. . . . I learned a lot from that last race certainly. I talked to Tom last summer and said, ‘If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it a thousand percent. You got to be out on the trail with me. I’m not going to do it by myself. Because it’s too hard.’’’

Twenty-four days left. And it’s about to get harder.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.