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Charlie Baker’s shifts give fodder to Democrats

Candidate for governor Charlie Baker was seen during a debate focused on human services at Faneuil Hall.
Candidate for governor Charlie Baker was seen during a debate focused on human services at Faneuil Hall. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

During a July 2010 online forum, Charlie Baker, then a candidate for governor, described his tax-reduction plan: a 5 percent tax rate for sales, income, and business.

“I’m a 5-5-5 guy,” Baker said.

Fast-forward to September 2013, a day after Baker released a video announcing his second gubernatorial campaign. Standing with his wife in the yard of their Swampscott home, Baker offered an updated tax vision.

“I’m not a 5-5-5 guy,” he said.

The tidy reversal, seized upon by Democrat Martha Coakley’s campaign, is one example of several policy shifts Baker has made since his unsuccessful 2010 campaign against Governor Deval Patrick.

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This year, he has worked to present a more liberal, more upbeat image on the campaign trail than in his 2010 bid. But his altered policy stances, say Democrats, hint at a candidate who is willing to say anything to win the hearts of voters.

On a host of major issues facing Beacon Hill, ranging from the minimum wage to climate change to footing the cost of a rail extension to the South Coast, Baker has, at a minimum, tailored his previous public opinions.

RELATED: Baker backs program on jobs for public housing residents

And Democrats are eager to exploit any daylight between Baker’s earlier positions and the ones he takes today.

“I think Charlie has an authenticity problem,” Governor Patrick told the Globe, adding: “It’s amazing to me he gets away with it. I couldn’t get away with it.”

Asked why he is not encouraged by instances in which Baker’s stances have shifted closer to his own, Patrick replied, “If I thought it was about maturation, substantive maturation, intellectual maturation — I don’t think that’s what this is. I think this is about calculation.”

Baker’s campaign declined to respond directly to Patrick’s criticism. His campaign manager, Jim Conroy, attributed any evolutions to Baker’s political education, saying in an e-mail, “Charlie has repeatedly said that he learned a lot from his first run in 2010, and voters are responding to Charlie’s positive plans to lead the Commonwealth in a new direction.”

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Baker’s campaign argued that his fiscal prescription for the state has changed because economic conditions have changed. He has vocally backed a ballot referendum that would disconnect increases in the state’s gas tax from inflation.

Some of the policy shifts appear necessary to help Baker construct the fresh image — one aides refer to privately as “Good Charlie” — and repair some of the damage left from 2010. Others are a matter of repackaging, softened language that allows Baker to appear to be a sunnier candidate.

Of the abandonment of the “5-5-5” plan, Conroy said, “Charlie has proposed a detailed set of economic proposals including tax incentives to stimulate job growth that are tailored for the current economic environment.”

Coakley, meanwhile, has been criticized for adopting a “wait and see” approach to many matters, an artful dodge that may prevent her from alienating large blocs of voters.

The “flip-flopping” allegations serve as a reprisal of the strategy Democrats used against 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Republicans deployed against 2004 Democratic nominee John F. Kerry. Both were portrayed as out of touch and bereft of any ideological anchor.

When video cameras track candidates, the prospect of an occasionally inconsistent message or a slip of the tongue can prove damning to candidates., political analysts said.

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“It can be very devastating if there already is a conception that a candidate will say just about anything to get elected, and they essentially prove it on the campaign trail,” said David Cohen, a political scientist in the University of Akron in Ohio.

Coakley’s campaign provided the Globe with a list of so-called “flip-flops” Baker has committed, including his vague statement to a reporter in 2010 about climate change: “I’m not saying I believe in it. I’m not saying I don’t.”

This campaign season, Baker has emphasized data that confirm climate change is underway. He said the state should take economically feasible steps to reduce its carbon footprint, including an emphasis on alternative energy.

His campaign disputes the notion that he changed his position, pointing to statements he made in 2010 correlating carbon emissions with increased temperatures.

Baker has also softened his opposition to increasing the minimum wage, proposing to raise it with tax incentives and an accompanying bump in the earned income tax credit.

And he has grown more publicly sanguine about extending commuter rail service to the South Coast than he was four years ago.

Less policy-focused, but perhaps more politically troubling for Baker, have been three statements he has made in the last few months that he was later forced to clean up.

In July, he had to explain a statement that appeared to dismiss a Supreme Court case affecting a requirement that small businesses provide insurance coverage for birth control. Last month, Democrats pounced when he passed up a chance to call for the resignation of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Baker did so a few days later. Soon after, he called a female TV reporter “sweetheart’’ and then apologized.

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In each instance, Baker’s campaign was compelled to face an enduring dynamic of the campaign: Against Coakley, he faces a steep deficit among female voters, who are the majority of the state’s voters.

Some of his other word choices have come back to cause him trouble, as well.

Baker came under criticism in 2010 after circulating a flier at the state GOP convention promoting his opposition to transgender rights legislation, derisively referring to it as “the bathroom bill.”

During this campaign, Baker said he supports the Massachusetts Transgender Equal Rights Act that became law in July 2012. That measure added gender identity to the state’s hate crimes statute and banned discrimination against transgender people in employment, housing, and credit.

It did not extend the ban to “public accommodations” like transportation and retail stores, additional protections Baker’s camp says he supports, though he still does not back adding bathrooms to that list.

But on other controversial issues, he has maintained his 2010 positions, among them his commitment on welfare reform, which he has pushed in paid advertisements. Democrats say the issue undercuts efforts by the former health insurance executive and venture capitalist to pitch himself as a kinder, gentler campaigner.

But Baker advisers say the welfare reform issue is important to many of the moderate voters the Republican will need in November.

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RELATED: More coverage of the gubernatorial race


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