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Joan Vennochi

The ‘man crush’ on Baker

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / March 14, 2010

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HE’S TALL, blond, and brainy, and the men of Massachusetts are falling for him.

Charlie Baker, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, benefits from what Governor Deval Patrick calls a “man crush.’’ That’s lingo for a man admiring another man to the point of wanting to be that man.

The latest Rasmussen poll shows Baker favored by 40 percent of the men who were surveyed and only 25 percent of women. In contrast, Patrick was favored by 42 percent of the women, but only 27 percent of the men.

In short, men prefer Baker, women prefer Patrick, in this poll, at this time. If the trend continues, it’s another problem for the incumbent Democrat.

The Rasmussen telephone survey of 500 likely voters shows Patrick clinging to a narrow lead in a three-way contest for governor. His approval rating is 39 percent, up five points. But even with state Treasurer Timothy Cahill in the race as an independent, Baker is within three points of Patrick, and he can thank guys for that.

As Rob Gray, Baker’s chief strategist, points out, Republicans win in Massachusetts when men flock to their side.

Republican Scott Brown, the rugged barn-coat-wearing, pick-up truck driving Senate candidate, beat Democrat Martha Coakley, 58-33, with male voters. (That was before a New York Times magazine profile revealed that Brown, a former male model, showed up in pink leather shorts for a first date with the woman he eventually married.) Coakley only beat Brown 47-43 with women voters.

In the 2002 gubernatorial contest, Mitt Romney won men by 13 points (58-35 percent), while losing women to Democrat Shannon O’Brien by four points (43-47). In 1998, Republican Paul Cellucci won the governor’s office and male voters, 57-40; the losing Democrat, Scott Harshbarger, won the women’s vote, 54-45.

What attracts men to Baker and women to Patrick?

It’s that old Venus-Mars divide, according to supporters from both camps.

“Deval comes across as softer and gentler, and personally empathetic, which may appeal to women. Charlie comes across as a business guy, which might do the opposite and appeal to men,’’ said one Baker supporter.

Patrick won the majority of men and women in the 2006 gubernatorial contest against Republican Kerry Healey. Since then, the governor’s poll numbers show a deep dissatisfaction with job performance that cuts across gender lines. But men are even tougher on him than women.

“Men think that Patrick hasn’t gotten anything done,’’ said a Democratic consultant who didn’t want to be named, because he tends to agree with that assessment. In contrast, Baker, who headed Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and is credited with its turnaround, fits a can-do model that men like.

To win reelection, Patrick must undercut Baker’s narrative as a corporate miracle worker and change the negative narrative of his own record. He’s trying to do both. If he can’t, perception is destiny.

Last week, the governor accused Baker of doing nothing to stop dramatic increases in health care costs during his tenure at Harvard Pilgrim. He’s also trying to hang the Big Dig around Baker’s shoulders, holding his rival accountable as top adviser to two Republican governors.

At the same time, Patrick is aggressively pitching his own accomplishments, which include making tough choices to close the budget gap, reforming pension, ethics, and lobbying laws, leading the way on education reform and taking on labor unions.

The challenge for Patrick: can he enhance his reputation on business issues and competence in running the executive branch enough to win back men? Or, is it easier for Baker to make inroads with women because he holds relatively liberal positions on social issues?

Will women fall for the spin from the tall, blond, brainy guy who talks about cutting government with the detachment of a butcher slicing beef?

Will they remember that during the Weld years spending increased, but the safety nets for some of the most vulnerable were cut in the name of fiscal austerity?

In the end, it will be up to Patrick to remind them. With men swooning for Baker, he needs every female vote he can get.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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