THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Scot Lehigh

And now, it’s the race for governor

Charlie Baker, the challenger who has shown the most potential. Charlie Baker, the challenger who has shown the most potential. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Scot Lehigh
February 12, 2010

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IT’S BEEN a fascinating year or so here in the land of the perpetual campaign.

First, city voters awarded King Thomas the Eternal, the human personification of the civic status quo, a record fifth term at City Hall. Then state voters overturned the carriage that Martha Coakley thought was carrying her toward an inevitable coronation, and instead made Scott Brown their new senator.

And now, after endless months of electioneering, it’s finally time to take a break from politics and . . .

But wait . . . what’s that dust cloud in the middle distance?

Why, it’s the governor’s race, which began last summer, but then took a back seat to more immediate contests.

So how do the major candidates look from today’s perspective? Let’s start with Republican Charlie Baker, the challenger who has shown the most potential in the campaign’s first leg.

Baker has posted impressive fundraising numbers, making it clear he will be able to run a well-financed effort. His pick of Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei as his ticket mate was shrewd. Tisei is knowledgeable and well-liked on Beacon Hill, and the fact that he’s gay has helped anchor the team firmly in Bill Weld’s socially inclusive tradition.

A further advantage for Baker, a business community favorite, is that this year’s election will likely be fought on the traditional GOP turf of how to improve the state’s business climate, jump-start the economy, and streamline state government. The Republican hopeful has already offered several interesting proposals in those areas.

That said, Baker faces some clear challenges. For one, the former state budget chief will have to explain what his call for tax rollbacks would spell for state services. Further, he’s had some brand-denting bumps, such as his recent brief but silly claim that Governor Patrick had inherited a $5 billion surplus. And though the issue is hardly central to state government, Baker’s too cute by half temporizing about global warming has raised eyebrows about his epistemological approach.

If Baker has done well overall, Deval Patrick has improved his situation markedly when it comes to government accomplishments. The Democratic incumbent deserves real (if not singular) credit for the ethics, transportation, and education reforms of the last year or so, plus an assist on the crackdown on public pension abuses. He’s now pivoting to focus more on the business climate, a move that is politically smart, if long overdue. That said, some of his proposed remedies look more like short-term political expedients than reforms truly designed to solve the underlying problems.

But though the substantive story he has to tell has improved, politically Patrick finds himself in a difficult position. Winning reelection is always difficult in a sputtering economy. Meanwhile, the laudable reforms he has pushed have alienated the union segment of the Democratic base, while some of the independents who should find those same measures appealing have clearly lost patience with Patrick over his previous missteps.

The governor is thus left trying to convince disgruntled union types that the Deval you know is preferable to the challengers you don’t, while persuading skeptical independents that he deserves another look. Further, his lackluster fundraising to date has sent a frisson of unease through Democratic ranks.

The one candidate whose stock has clearly declined is Republican-turned-independent-returned-Republican Christy Mihos. Last year, Mihos, having signed on political Svengali Dick Morris, was supposedly prepared to spend big in his effort to beat Baker for the GOP nomination. He hasn’t. Meanwhile, he’s been battered by stories about unpaid bills, aggrieved vendors, and estranged advisers. If Mihos were running for gadfly-in-chief, he’d be the odds-on favorite. But as a candidate for governor, he looks less serious now than he did when his quest commenced.

If Mihos is sinking, Timothy Cahill, the Democrat-turned-independent, is at best treading water. Yes, he’s got some money and some name recognition. But early on, Cahill had a shot to emerge as the principal challenger to Patrick. Instead, he’s remained a lone wolf, one more focused on political marketing than eye-catching ideas.

So far, Cahill seems like a rebel without a unique or compelling cause - and that doesn’t make for a convincing independent candidacy.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.

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