Charlie Baker’s tightrope

Republican Charlie Baker.
Barry Chin/Globe staff
Republican Charlie Baker.

If you haven’t followed every twist and turn in the governor’s race, Tuesday’s debate might have felt disconcerting — like walking into the third installment of the “Twilight” movie franchise without having seen the previous two. There were oblique references to attack ads, well-rehearsed answers to well-worn challenges.

And then, this: A long monologue from Charlie Baker, as he feverishly rejected what he called an enduring storyline: “That I care about numbers and I don’t care about people.”

Baker’s speech covered everything from saving jobs at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care to campaigning for Swampscott selectman in the rain. It was infused with emotion: He looked as if he might be holding back a tear, or maybe trying to conjure one up. But it also exemplified the tightrope Baker has had to walk throughout the race. He has to appeal to the economic angst of suburban Republicans and independents — his strongest moment came when he railed against the growing middle-class tax burden — while courting moderate Democrats and women he still needs to win.


It’s the battle between Baker the Weed-Whacker — a moniker he gave himself in a previous debate — and what you might call Compassionate Charlie. And the tension was evident several times, as Baker answered questions about such issues as education and immigration. And sick time: He opposes a ballot measure to mandate earned sick leave. His alternative plan would exempt many small businesses, but leave 1 million people without that benefit.

Many times, as Baker walked the line, Coakley responded by bringing up values. She doesn’t gamble, as she said, but the values card could be an ace up her sleeve. I don’t doubt that Baker is “facile with math” and still cares a lot about people. But he still has to prove, to some voters, that it isn’t just an act.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.