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State House Roundup: Do You Disavow?

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The sleepy affair, otherwise known as the race for governor, got a high-wattage jolt this week as Michelle Obama brought a bit of star power to the trail while a Republican super PAC threatened to shake up the race in a more impactful way.

While Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Charlie Baker - and to a lesser extent the three independents in the race - continued to parry, a judge pushed off until after the election a decision on whether Partners HealthCare will be allowed to expand, with major ramifications for the health care sector hanging in the balance.

Gov. Deval Patrick, who juggled his time between campaigning for fellow Democrats, celebrating Hispanics and championing manufacturing, metaphorically cut the ribbon on a major highway project, announcing the first steps of an effort to reconfigure the Turnpike at the Allston tolls and add a new commuter rail stop on the Worcester to Boston line.

The project won't actually start until 2017, but by getting the ball rolling now the Patrick administration can do its best to ensure it won't get shelved by whoever occupies his office in three months.

"The next governor is going to need to sign onto a lot of things," Transportation Secretary Richard Davey said.

In that vein, the contest to replace Patrick in the corner suite remains up for grabs, deadlocked in the polls and aching for a turning point that might tip the scales or at least excite some voters. The first televised debate of the general election in Springfield failed to generate the type of moment to swing the election one way or another.

Obama's visit to Dorchester on Friday was intended to help Coakley build a bit of enthusiasm around her campaign, and fill her depleted coffers. The Democratic ticket for governor limped into October with just $266,339 in the bank to the $1.55 million stockpiled away by Republican Charlie Baker and his running mate Karyn Polito for the home stretch.

Vice President Joe Biden also swooped into town for a Democratic National Committee fundraiser and foreign policy speech at Harvard.

But even as Coakley has begun to lean heavily on the state Democratic Party for a financial crutch, a Republican funded super PAC may have provided Coakley the ammunition she was looking for to energize her campaign.

For a lot of reasons, Charlie Baker's decision to turn away from a "People's Pledge" in his race for governor against Coakley made sense. It's hard enough running as a Republican in Massachusetts. Why turn away help?

But, for better or worse, that moment, in the afterglow of primary victories for both candidates, made the current state of the race all too predictable. Some outside group was bound to toe the lines of acceptability. The only question, then, is how do the candidates respond?

Coakley got her chance this week when the Republican Governors Association-funded super PAC Commonwealth Future began airing a tough new ad aimed at Coakley's record of protecting children, replete with foreboding imagery of empty playgrounds and blaring headlines about children dying under state supervision.

Coakley seized the moment, calling the ad "disgusting" and other less-than flattering descriptors, and demanded that Baker support her call for the ad to be taken off the air. "If he doesn't pull it, it means he accepts it and that he endorses it," Coakley said.

Baker wouldn't quite go that far, condemning the "tone" of the ad, but stopping short of calling for it to be taken down. Theatrics aside, Baker said the ad raised a valid question about the state's response, and more specifically Coakley's response, to a lawsuit alleging deep problems within the now deeply scrutinized Department of Children and Families.

Baker's camp also pointed out similarities in the negative tone to a super PAC ad that began airing the first day of the general election campaign portraying him as a high-rolling, champagne sipping health care executive that profited off the higher premiums he charged working families. The ad, aired by a super PAC funded by labor groups and the Democratic Governor's Association, did not draw nearly as much push bakc from Bakerland.

The ad kerfuffle has given Coakley and her campaign something to rally around, not unlike a similarly ominous ad run against Deval Patrick in 2006 by his Republican opponent Kerry Healey. That ad, set in a darkened parking garage as woman walked alone to her car, playing on Patrick's advocacy for convicted rapist Ben LaGuer. And it backfired on Healey, as voters recoiled from the negativity.

One major difference, of course, is that Healey's campaign was behind the garage ad and had to own it, while the anti-Coakley ad is being run by a Republican super PAC.

So which was worse? "I don't know. I lived through both of them, so I'll let you guys decide," said Coakley advisor and former Patrick chief of staff and campaign manager Doug Rubin.

Coakley's decision to go on the offensive over the ad reportedly got a seal of approval from the cadre of Democratic consultants who huddled together in a downtown Boston high-rise on Thursday for a meeting convened by Coakley's inner circle. The consultants, not all affiliated with her campaign, were used as a sounding board for her messaging.

"It was Field of Dreams," joked one attendee, Liberty Square's Scott Ferson, who assured, "If people went into that room and were skeptical for any reason, I think they left convinced."

For the second week in a row, Baker continues to poll dead even, if not slightly ahead of Coakley, but he also lost another news cycle to the outrage generated by his opponents. Perhaps more so than his verbal "sweetheart" gaffe, this flare-up might have legs.

It also overshadowed a week for Baker in which he stumped for votes in Boston and Worcester, talked up plans for welfare reform and put forward an alternative sick leave proposal aimed at blunting the criticism of his opposition to Question 4, which would guarantee earned sick time for all employees.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Super PACs, long demonized in hypothetical terms by politicians throughout the state, gave Coakley a reason to jeer.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Vice President Joe Biden is nothing if not empathetic. Questioned during an appearance at Harvard by the vice-president of the student body, Biden quipped, "Isn't it a bitch," in reference to the student's title.

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