- Associated Press - Saturday, September 19, 2015

BOSTON (AP) - As Massachusetts Democrats gather in Springfield for their annual convention this weekend, there’ll be plenty of chatter about the 2016 race for president and the party’s priorities in Washington and on Beacon Hill.

Inevitably, talk will come around to the problem of Charlie Baker.

The state’s Republican governor has been in office just over 200 days and - helped in part by his handling of last winter’s towering snowfalls - remains popular with voters of all political stripes.

He’s buddied up with Democratic Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and forged working relationships with the two top Democrats at the Statehouse - Senate President Stan Rosenberg and House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

So as they eye a strategy to reclaim the governor’s office in 2018, Democratic activists are casting about for any levers they can use to chip away at Baker’s appeal.

This week Democrats zeroed in on early education.

After Baker visited a school in Holyoke to celebrate the receipt of more than $14 million from a federal preschool expansion program, the state Democratic Party tweeted out: “Sorry I vetoed your #EarlyEd funding boys & girls - now smile for the camera, would ya.”

The tweet referred to Baker’s veto in July of nearly $17.6 million in kindergarten expansion grants included in the version of the state budget sent to him by lawmakers. The House and Senate overrode Baker’s veto.

The party is also hoping to scuff up Baker on social issues, particularly his reluctance to extend the state’s public accommodations protections to transgender individuals.

Former Gov. Deval Patrick signed a bill in 2011 protecting transgender people from discrimination in the workplace and housing, but advocates say it’s time to broaden the law to include protections in public places like hospitals, malls, restaurants, parks and government offices.

Democratic activists are quick to point out that companies like Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Google and Eastern Bank are backing the effort. Baker, the former CEO of Harvard Pilgrim, said he doesn’t support the changes.

The popular Baker hasn’t been making Democrats’ job easy.

He’s gone out of his way to distance himself from the some of the more caustic partisan debates in Congress and is still far more moderate on social issues than many Republicans.

But Baker isn’t completely immune from the weight of party politics.

In July, Baker attended a meeting of the Republican Governor’s Association in Colorado and was later elected to the organization’s executive committee - filling one of the vacancies created when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker resigned their committee positions to run for president.

On his monthly radio show on WGBH-FM this week, Baker said he assumes he’ll support the eventual Republican nominee for president.

Baker has also begun to hit the road for Republicans in other states. As Democrats began to gather in Springfield on Friday, Baker was the featured speaker at a fall dinner of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania.

If Democratic loyalists have yet to significantly whittle away at Baker’s favorability numbers, there’s plenty of time. They won’t be meeting to endorse a Democratic candidate for governor for another three years.

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