- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 8, 2014

BOSTON (AP) - With the campaign taking on an increasingly sharper tone, Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker and Democratic nominee Martha Coakley squared off Wednesday morning before an audience of business leaders over a range of issues, including super PACs, child welfare, and Baker’s former private-sector salary.

The debate hosted by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce reprised a number of themes raised during a feisty televised encounter just 12 hours earlier, though unlike that debate, the three independent candidates for governor were not invited to participate on Wednesday.

Though it began with a discussion of the candidates’ plans for growing the Massachusetts economy, the debate later reverted to a more personal tone as Coakley and Baker sparred over the content of attack ads run by super political action committees - also known as independent expenditure groups - that operate outside of the campaigns.

Debate moderator Bob Oakes, of WBUR-FM, gave both candidates an opportunity to directly ask their supporters to pull the ads. Neither would, though Coakley said she would call for an end to the ads if Baker would agree to a so-called “people’s pledge” limiting outside spending in the campaign.

“I’m not going to unilaterally disarm,” Coakley said. “If Charlie will do it, I will do it.”

Baker said it was Coakley supporters who launched the first super PAC attack ad, which included a reference to Baker’s $1.7 million salary as chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.

“As far as I’m concerned she doesn’t have credibility on this issue,” said Baker. “The super PAC ad war in Massachusetts was started by folks who represented the attorney general.”

The Republican has repeatedly said that he did not like the tone of an ad that criticizes Coakley’s record on child protection issues - an ad she has labeled misleading and deceitful - but Baker said Wednesday that the ad raised legitimate questions about why the attorney general declined to settle a lawsuit filed by a child advocacy group against the state’s foster care system.

Coakley credited Baker with saving Harvard Pilgrim from bankruptcy, but again questioned why his salary nearly tripled while insurance premiums for subscribers were going up as much as 150 percent.

Baker noted that Coakley did not previously question the salary increases from 2007-2009, even though her office oversees nonprofit corporations.

“No one said boo about how Harvard Pilgrim’s board of directors calculated and determined executive compensation,” Baker said. “Here we are five years later and suddenly it’s a big deal.”

That led to an odd exchange in which Coakley, who took office in 2006, first said she wasn’t attorney general at the time Baker received the pay hikes. She later told reporters that she “misspoke” about the timing, while adding that her office did not have direct say over the salaries of nonprofit executives.

Coakley and Baker also took jabs at each other’s economic growth proposals, with Baker saying the Democrat’s plan lacked specificity and Coakley contending Baker’s proposal for targeted business tax cuts wouldn’t help low-income people.

“The weakest part of my Republican opponent’s plan is that it basically gives tax cuts to corporations and hopes it will trickle down,” she said.

Baker said the state’s current tax policies and regulatory structure were driving many small businesses out of Massachusetts.

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