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Massachusetts Governor's Race In A Dead Heat

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Democrats in Massachusetts can't shake the past as election day approaches. Polls show the race for governor in a dead heat. Republican businessman Charlie Baker is beginning to inch ahead of Democratic candidate Martha Coakley. The two candidates meet tonight for their first of several debates. Democrats are increasingly worried Coakley may stumble and disappoint the party, like she did in 2010. That's when she lost a U.S. Senate race to Republican Scott Brown. NPR's Tovia Smith has been talking to voters.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Many Democrats are still haunted four years later by that one they never saw coming, when Coakley let a 40-point lead slip away and lost the Senate seat that was long held by Ted Kennedy.

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MARTHA COAKLEY: I want you to know that I just got off the phone with Scott Brown. I have offered him my congratulations...

SMITH: Democrats were crushed and are now afraid of that nightmare repeating itself.

PAUL FRIEDMAN: Just not a huge fan.

SMITH: 44-year-old Paul Friedman (ph) from Acton says he almost always votes Democratic but probably won't this time. He says he still can't get over Coakley's loss to Brown.

FRIEDMAN: She should've beat him and she didn't. She just didn't give it her all. So you know, I think that gives - it give myself a lot of pause. You know, maybe she's not going to fight hard enough.

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COAKLEY: So who's ready to win in November? Who's going to work to get it done?

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SMITH: Coakley insists she's learned from her mistakes and after a bruising primary with a narrower than expected win, she's trying to patch things up with her base, like this group of diehard Democrats in Cambridge.

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COAKLEY: I know we can do it. But it's not going to happen unless we work.

SMITH: Coakley would be Massachusetts' first woman elected governor and she is counting on help from women, who outnumber men in Massachusetts and are more likely to vote. So far, women are braking for Coakley, though Baker has been chipping away at the gender gap. His first ad as GOP nominee features him as a family man chatting at home with his teenage daughter.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN AD)

DAUGHTER: Governor, Dad? That's a bit optimistic.

CHARLIE BAKER: Why not? With Bill Weld, we made Massachusetts number one in job creation.

SMITH: Baker touts his work as cabinet secretary to the still-popular, former Republican Governor Bill Weld. And in the private sector, Baker says he quote, "saved a big health insurance company from bankruptcy."

So the ad suggests he's the fiscal conservative and social liberal who can save Massachusetts.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN AD)

DAUGHTER: You're totally pro-choice and bipartisan.

BAKER: Bipartisan leadership's what we need on Beacon Hill.

SMITH: Coakley, however, is hammering Baker as out of touch with working families and especially women, saying he opposes initiatives for universal preschool and earns sick time and was too slow to criticize the mishandling of recent NFL domestic violence scandals.

As Baker was trying to undo damage with women on that issue however, he created another one when responding to a female reporter's question.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The Democrats are saying - they just put out an email a couple of minutes ago...

BAKER: OK, this is going to be the last one, sweetheart.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: This is the last one - sweetheart?

BAKER: I'm kidding.

SMITH: Women's advocates pounced, calling Baker's sweetheart comment quote, "condescending" and quote, "another example of his blatant disregard for women."

Coakley says it's telling.

COAKLEY: I think that it's not something I would look for in a colleague or someone who's acting in a professional way.

SHANNON JENKINS: I'm certain he probably didn't mean anything by it, but, that's just not something you can do on the campaign trail.

SMITH: University of Massachusetts professor Shannon Jenkins says Baker's bigger mistake is not making a more substantive case on how he does get what matters to women.

JENKINS: Right - campaign ads with your daughter and talking about how you cook - I don't think are the things that women really care about. I mean, you know, I don't think he's that guy. I just think it plays into the narrative that the Coakley campaign is trying to build, which is - Charlie Baker doesn't get women.

SMITH: For his part, Baker first shrugged off the sweetheart comment and later apologized, but he says he has a track record of working with women and playing political gotcha, he says, will only backfire.

BAKER: I mean, I don't take a back seat to anybody in my support for women. Most of the women I know are a lot more interested in hearing what your plans are to build a great Massachusetts and they are in listening to somebody try and shout somebody down.

SMITH: Three Independent candidates, also running for governor are polling at just one or 2 percent but have been fiercely attacking both front-runners. It's been 12 years since Massachusetts voters elected a Republican governor. In fact, the only time a Republican was elected statewide since then was when Martha Coakley lost to Scott Brown.

Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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