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Commentary: Will The Primary Cost Coakley The General?

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley, center, speaks during a roundtable discussion as U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., left, and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., right, look on at offices of the Service Employees International Union on Sept. 14 in Boston. (Steven Senne/AP)
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley, center, speaks during a roundtable discussion as U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., left, and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., right, look on at offices of the Service Employees International Union on Sept. 14 in Boston. (Steven Senne/AP)
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In the latest polls, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley has lost her lead over Republican Charlie Baker.

Assuming the polls are correct and Coakley has lost her mojo, what happened? Recent news coverage doesn’t seem to explain her decline. After all, last week Baker had to acknowledge making some gender gaffes and Coakley made negligible news. Their debate in the western part of the state, which included the three independent candidates, didn’t seem to cause a seismic shift in perception.

It’s not as if their ads have made much of a difference. Baker now has a much better TV spot — with Democrats endorsing the "Good Charlie," as Baker aides refer to their new, improved candidate — but that ad came after recent polls.

And while it’s true that Baker has a lot more money in his campaign account than Coakley, unspent money doesn’t explain her downward slide, either.

Apparently Coakley was damaged in the primary more than was evident at the time.

Both of her primary opponents, state Treasurer Steve Grossman and Dr. Donald Berwick, strongly and repeatedly criticized her during that race. And when the votes were counted, both Grossman and Berwick ended up doing better than expected.

They squeezed Coakley from left and right. Berwick was considered a candidate of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, while Grossman represented the traditional, establishment (not to say, conservative) wing. Coakley took the seemingly safer course of sounding less ideological and less edgy on issues. She ran as the women’s candidate — positioned to make history, not waves. While that gave her an image of progressiveness — after all, the prospect of electing the first woman governor is inspirational to feminists — it didn't project an aura of leadership or raise the hopes of voters concerned about economic issues.

Coakley emerged as the unimpressive winner, a nominee who failed to live up to expectations in the margin or meaning of her victory. Still, she had a period of time to make a good second impression. She had the time to, if not reinvent herself as a candidate on a mission, at least demonstrate that she was not the same loser of 2010. She needed to reassure her own party base that she could be a genuine leader, not a timid front-runner.

But she didn't quite get out of the starting gate after winning the September primary. Her victory speech was a boring, rambling address that sounded more like a litany of soundbites that speechwriters had rejected as too banal. When a candidate tries too hard — especially in attacking the opponent — it can be painful for listeners. Her election night audience was clearly not inspired. The sporadic applause seemed like the encouragement of people wanting to hear the words “in conclusion.”

Even before the primary results, polling revealed a disturbing problem for Coakley: A large number of Grossman supporters said they would vote for Baker if Coakley were the nominee. Yikes! That was discouraging news for Coakley strategists. And they never came up with a plausible answer to the obvious question: How could Coakley persuade Grossman backers to rethink their opinion of her?

That is still the challenge for Coakley. And it’s understandable that she hasn't come up with a strategy to win over moderate and conservative Democrats — because the arguments Grossman made are persuasive.

He said the state needed a successful business executive who could create jobs and spur economic development. That’s not Coakley. He said the state needed a determined administrator who knew how to innovate, streamline bureaucracy, and end the scandals. Again, that’s not Coakley. And he said the state needs a coalition-builder who can bring people together as allies. That, too, does not really describe Coakley.

Grossman’s case against Coakley was the kind of case made against past attorneys general — that they are prosecutors, not leaders; and that they are about regulating and enforcing, not managing or modernizing.

Coakley’s recent TV spot is an attempt to win support from Grossman voters by repeatedly saying she has a “plan.” But that is the same plan for economic development that Grossman, in debate, called a “fake plan.”

She can’t win Grossman supporters by using Grossman as a surrogate. As popular as he is with many Democrats, Republicans and independents — especially the thousands who have met him personally over the years — he can’t convincingly rebut what he said during the primary. It’s not as if he could say in a TV spot, “As fake plans go, Martha Coakley has the best one available.”

Whatever Coakley’s shortcomings in terms of credentials, personality or eloquence, something is clearly wrong with her campaign. And it’s not just the candidate; it is equally her consultants. They tend to be State House insiders — lobbyists, not populists. And they have produced only conventional ads and risk-averse strategy.

Since the primary, the Coakley campaign has been on cruise control and the speed is set way below the speed limit for this race.

That’s why Baker has made surprising progress. It’s not as if he has overtaken Coakley by being bold and creative. He has made progress because Coakley is going nowhere.

Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst for WBUR.

Todd Domke Twitter Republican Political Analyst
Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst for WBUR.

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