- Associated Press - Friday, March 21, 2014

BOSTON (AP) - About the only major unanswered question facing Massachusetts Republicans at their party’s state convention is whether Charlie Baker, the 2010 GOP gubernatorial nominee who is making a second run for the job, will enjoy a clear path to the nomination or first face a primary test from a more conservative challenger.

Baker is expected to easily win his party’s endorsement on Saturday. But Mark Fisher, a business owner and tea party member, needs the support of only 15 percent of the delegates to qualify for the September Republican primary ballot. Anything less for Fisher would leave Baker unopposed in the primary and make him the party’s de facto nominee.

Many moderate Republicans who back Baker are hoping for the latter scenario. They believe future success hinges, in part, on assuring independent voters, who make up a majority of the state’s electorate, that the Massachusetts party does not fully embrace the national Republican platform, particularly when it comes to social issues like gay marriage and abortion.

A clear-cut convention victory by Baker “shows the party finally understands that moderate candidates win and extreme candidates lose,” said Gene Hartigan, a consultant and former director of the state party.

Republicans currently hold no statewide offices, no seats in the congressional delegation and are outnumbered more than 5-1 in the Legislature.

Last month, the 80-member Republican State Committee adopted a platform that included more socially conservative language on abortion and gay marriage, prompting criticism not only from Democrats but moderate Republicans.

Richard Tisei, Baker’s running mate four years ago, announced this week that he planned to skip the convention because of the platform adopted by the committee. Tisei, who is gay and married, is challenging Democratic U.S. Rep. John Tierney in the state’s 6th congressional district after narrowly losing to Tierney in 2012.

Baker and state GOP chairwoman Kirsten Hughes were among Republicans who distanced themselves from the platform.

“Charlie’s position is clear on those issues,” said Baker’s spokesman, Tim Buckley. “He and (Tisei) share the same position on support of marriage equality and abortion rights.”

Buckley said he did not want to make a prediction as to whether Baker would win would more than 85 percent of the delegates - assuring an unopposed primary - but stressed that a contested primary would not prompt any change in the campaign’s overall strategy.

Baker held high-ranking posts in the administrations of Republicans Govs. William Weld and Paul Cellucci, and later served as chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. He lost four years ago to incumbent Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, who is not seeking re-election.

Five Democrats are vying for their party’s nomination, with the likelihood of the field being whittled down after the Democratic state convention in June.

Fisher, who opposes abortion and gay marriage, said Friday he was confident of reaching the minimum 15 percent threshold at the GOP convention.

“I’m not the party favorite,” he acknowledged. “I’m seen as a threat by the party leadership and I shouldn’t be. They should be welcoming me.”

The convention was also scheduled to formally endorse several other Republican candidates who are unopposed within the party, including former state Rep. Karyn Polito, who is running for lieutenant governor, and Brian Herr, a Hopkinton selectman who is challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Edward Markey.

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