These are good times for Charlie Baker, despite the poll reported in the Boston Herald that he’s in a virtual dead heat with independent challenger Tim Cahill in the three-way primary race to unseat Governor Patrick. Baker himself points out that even Christy Mihos had 22 percent at this stage of his 2006 gubernatorial race as an independent but, with no party backing him, Mihos limped in with under seven percent in the general election. But that’s not why Charlie’s on a roll.

Charlie Baker is doing well because he’s doing better. He seems to have hit his stride in his presentation, calling for a “smarter, better, more creative way of running the government.” Who wouldn’t want that? He attacks Governor Patrick indirectly, saying “There’s not a lot of imagination around” for problem-solving. And, he says, we have to do more than just “managing quarter to quarter.”

The former Secretary of Human Services and later of Administration and Finance under Governor Bill Weld takes credit (always using “we,” of course, rather than “I”) for accomplishments in education (charter schools and foundation grants), human services facility consolidation, criminal justice reform, balancing the budget (required by state Constitution) and cutting taxes. Luckily for him, the 1990’s economy was generally good enough to be able to cut unemployment in half at the same time. Thanks to the Great Recession, Deval Patrick has had to cut $9 billion from successive budgets and raise taxes in order to meet that requirement for a balanced budget.

Baker’s main focus is on jobs and economic development, including the problem of companies starting here but expanding elsewhere. “I know the drill and can bring people together to get the job done,” he asserts.

It’s what Baker projects as much as the themes he articulates that has people at house parties nodding affirmatively as he speaks. His presence has become more forceful; his articulation, more clearcut. He projects enthusiasm and confidence and experience.

He has long insisted 5000 jobs can but cut from state government. Pushed to explain where, he says “pretty much everywhere.” He notes that several agencies are performing the same functions, that there are 120 operating agencies, 60 authorities and six development entities, offering too much fragmentation and distribution of responsibility. One remembers, of course, what happened when Patrick tried to consolidate development agencies and “interested parties” sprang into action to stop him. But Baker scores points when he says that “we shouldn’t be having to cut day habilitation and services for developmental disabilities and homeless vets” because we haven’t been able to save money through bureaucratic consolidation.

He also speaks with great precision about pension reform, acknowledging that “they” (read, the Patrick administration) took the first step last year but detailing further necessary changes.

Baker supports the state health law for making care more available but faults the lack of attention to primary care and the fallout from defensive medicine due to the malpractice environment.

The bottom line is this: Democrats should understand that Charlie Baker is no Tea Party Republican, notwithstanding his hard right rhetoric at the state’s GOP convention, designed to push Christy Mihos out of the race. Nor is Baker a pushover when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of independents, the same kind of independents who voted for Bill Weld and (the first) Mitt Romney.

A general election choice between Baker and Patrick could have been a campaign of subtlety and nuance. But with Tim Cahill in as an independent, running well now and to the right of Baker, it’s anyone’s guess whether the Charlie Baker campaigning today will be the same Charlie Baker asking for our votes in November.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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