In shift, Grossman launches sharp attack against Coakley

In a sharp change of tone in a race that has so far been cordial, Treasurer Steven Grossman launched a broadside against Attorney General Martha Coakley, one of his rivals for the Democratic nomination for governor.

Attacking her on criminal justice issues — Coakley’s are of expertise — Grossman said she had, over the years, shifted her position on the death penalty and a “three strikes” law, questioning her liberal chops.

“Especially in a race as important as governor, Democratic voters should not—and need not—settle for a candidate whose stances on core progressive values and issues are as squishy as Martha Coakley’s,” said Grossman. “Again and again, as this campaign unfolds, she continues to abandon the positions she has championed for years.”

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The shift in rhetoric from Grossman marks a new phase of a campaign that has been polite and friendly, to the point of the candidates often joking and laughing with each other at the many joint appearances. Polls have found Grossman — and the other three candidates — trailing Coakley, the most widely known, by wide margins.

At a Boston Globe Lab debate last week, the candidates were asked about the state “three-strikes law.”

“Should we have a three-strikes law?” one moderator asked.

“Which we do,” the other moderator added before the candidates began speaking.

“No,” Coakley replied, taking the same position as the four other Democratic contenders.

The three-strikes law is a phrase often used to refer to legislation known as Melissa’s Bill, which was signed into law in the summer of 2012 by Governor Deval Patrick.

Among other measures, the law says if a criminal amasses three convictions for certain violent crimes, he or she is not eligible for parole.

Coakley supported the passage of Melissa’s Bill and the Grossman campaign said her “no” answer last week “a clear reversal.”

But a Coakley spokesman said Coakley was referring to other types of three-strikes legislation, not the Massachusetts law.

“Steve Grossman is just wrong on this issue,” said Coakley spokesman Kyle Sullivan in an email. “The facts are clear on this — Martha does not support a three strikes law like those that have been passed in other states like California and Texas where the third conviction for even minor offenses could result in a life sentence. In fact, she did not support legislation in Massachusetts that would have implemented similar laws here.”

“Martha does support Melissa’s Law, which updated the existing habitual offender law,” he added.

Grossman also criticized Coakley for changing her position on the death penalty, which Coakley currently opposes.

In a 2004 Globe article, Coakley, then the Middlesex County District Attorney, was described as having “formerly supported the death penalty under limited circumstances.” But the article added that she no longer favored it.

Sullivan said Coakley began opposing the death penalty in all circumstances in the early 2000s.

The other Democratic contenders hoping to succeed Patrick are Donald M. Berwick, a former Medicare and Medicaid chief; Juliette Kayyem, a former state and federal homeland security official; and Joe Avellone, a bio-pharmaceutical executive.

There are also two Republicans and three independent candidates running for governor in the state.