Politics

Political intelligence

Governor’s race an election of dread

He or she who gaffes last may gaffe hardest.

With the governor’s race, both in polls and the private appraisals of campaign strategists, nearing a photo finish, a common theme has cropped up with operatives in both parties during the last few weeks: some variation of “whoever makes the last mistake loses.”

Setting aside what a gloomy statement that is on the state of our politics — the very definition of a race to the bottom — that mood has had tangible and funereal effects on the tenor of the campaign.

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It’s the dread election.

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Campaign trackers wielding video cameras hover silently around both Republican Charlie Baker and Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley wherever they roam. In Melrose on Tuesday, two wordlessly tracked Baker. In Medford on Wednesday, three formed an odd, recording-for-posterity perimeter around Coakley.

These folks — young operatives just starting out in the game — exist for one purpose: to catch the candidate in misstatement or confusion, awkwardness, or — Heaven forfend — an “unbecoming” moment. Consider how unsettling it would be to have a camera on you at all times, with only your finest moments destined for the cutting-room floor and your worst bound for millions of dollars worth of super PAC ads. It’s the reality show from Hell.

In this race, Baker is the undisputed leader in the gaffe column, cycling in a few short months through, arguably, three such moments that left him vulnerable to charges that he is unappealing to female voters.

Coakley, by instinct a more reserved person, has committed no such slips of the tongue but has come under criticism for being vague and evasive. Her inability to correctly peg the state gas tax was less a gaffe and more a manifest lack of knowledge on a public policy issue that consumed much of Beacon Hill over the past two years.

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If ever there were a candidate who could understandably be still suffering from the shock of losing a gimme election and then being publicly savaged for years, it would be Coakley. Add to that her natural caution, and those damn trackers, and she can come across as something less than a political highlight reel while out on the stump.

Coakley, whose unsuccessful 2010 Senate campaign was felled largely by a series of unforced errors, denied that the campaign was a forced march away from fallibility.

“That’s not my approach to this at all. I have been running for this for 14 months now, every day, being encouraged by the exciting things that are going on in Massachusetts,” she said.

She added, “I’m not worried about making mistakes.”

Baker, in debates and on the trail, seems of late slightly drained of the near-exuberance he showed earlier in the campaign. He shakes hands with trackers after public appearances and wishes them well, but has been taught the lesson of what happens when he comes across as overly friendly or familiar.

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Which did not seem a risk on Tuesday, after Baker had wrapped up a walking tour of downtown businesses with Melrose Mayor Rob Dolan, a Democrat and alumnus of Fordham University, where he matriculated with former lieutenant governor Timothy P. Murray, whose loyalists are not predisposed to affection toward Coakley. Dolan did not endorse Baker, but did accept the Wiffle ball that Baker bought for him at a local hardware store.

Baker greeted Melrosians, some of whom appeared to knew him, some of whom did not. “Charlie, don’t come after us,” an MBTA bus driver hollered in traffic from behind the wheel, voicing the fears of many a public employee, before allowing that he planned to vote for Baker.

Walking back to his campaign car, a 2007 Chrysler 300, Baker stopped when he heard an apparent acolyte shout out the second-floor window of a three-floor walkup.

“Scott!” the woman shouted. “Awesome!”

Baker raised his arms, in the universal signal for touchdown or being mistaken for New Hampshire Senate candidate Scott Brown, trackers capturing it all for digital posterity. “Charlie!” he replied.

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at Jim.OSullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.