By Michael Norton and Matt Murphy

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

BOSTON -- Before Jeff McCormick launched his campaign for governor, running as an independent, former Republican Treasurer Joe Malone predicted McCormick would become a "powerful force" in the 2014 race and slammed the party he had long served as out of touch. Now a former Malone aide is helping McCormick try to dent the Republican brand and candidate for governor Charlie Baker.

In a missive Wednesday, former Malone aide Frank Ciota, who the McCormick campaign described as a filmmaker and "staff writer" for the campaign, speculated that Tea Party Republican Mark Fisher may qualify for the governor's race primary ballot, described Republican candidates for statewide offices as "unknowns," and alleged delegate signups for Saturday's GOP convention were lackluster and showed Baker was "not inspiring his troops."

Ciota concluded, "The Mass GOP's win-loss record over the last ten years in major races is 1 and 64. From the looks of this Saturday's convention, that record is about to become a lot worse."

Like McCormick, Baker is touting his business experience as a selling point for his candidacy and the 2010 Republican gubernatorial nominee, who lost to Gov. Deval Patrick that year, is the presumed nominee this year regardless of whether Fisher secures enough support at the convention to make it onto the ballot.

"It is disappointing that while Mr. McCormick talks about bringing a fresh perspective to political discourse he resorts to dishonest attacks that do not make Massachusetts a better place as Charlie has consistently done in his campaign by offering new ideas to create jobs and improve education," Baker spokesman Tim Buckley said in a statement.

GOP party officials also disputed the McCormick campaign's characterization of interest in Saturday's Republican Convention in Boston as lackluster. The Ciota letter suggested GOP insiders believe only 1,000 delegates may show up to the Agganis Arena, a historically low total that could jeopardize Baker's ability to avoid a primary. A GOP source, however, told the News Service that 2,500 delegates had registered to attend by Wednesday.

Fisher, who has appealed to conservatives and Tea Party Republicans within Massachusetts, needs at least 15 percent of the voting delegates to qualify for the ballot in September. And though he has publicly rejected the idea that the GOP should be a "big tent" party to attract the broadest support, he has expressed concern about his ability to make sure his delegate base in central and western Massachusetts shows up in Boston.

Four years ago, Baker succeeded in knocking Republican challenger Christy Mihos off the ballot at the convention when he secured 89 percent. Though the Baker campaign is not openly discussing its strategy for Saturday, Ciota noted if Fisher is allowed to continue his campaign "it means that unlike four years ago when Baker had no primary opponent, this time he cannot receive assistance from either the state party or the national party unless he prevails in the September primary."

Another former Malone deputy, Eric Fehrnstrom, also had his battles within the party, including during the 1998 governor's race primary where Malone unsuccessfully tried to topple Paul Cellucci. Fehnstrom, who went on to later work as a top adviser to Gov. Mitt Romney, including during his two campaigns for president, was unable in 1998 to help Malone outpoll Cellucci, who went on to defeat Democrat Scott Harshbarger in the governor's race.

During that campaign, Malone tried to rally conservative voters by making points about Cellucci's management of the Big Dig and his willingness to work with Democrats. Ironically, Baker's role in the Big Dig as a member of the Weld and Cellucci administrations remains a talking point for Democrats hoping to hold the Corner Office.

Unlike four years ago, Baker declined to take a no-new-taxes pledge this year and Patrick as recently as Sunday morning was joking that he and Baker are now "identical twins," asserting that they appear to share the same views on climate change, raising the minimum wage, and commuter rail extension to the South Coast. 

Malone last year quit the Republican Party, predicting the GOP would end up the third party in Massachusetts behind independents, and telling talk show host Michael Graham that the Republican brand was acting like an "anchor" on GOP candidates.

While they have not run up the same number of high-profile losses as Republicans, candidates running as independents are still searching for their first win in statewide elections in Massachusetts. Tim Cahill, the former state treasurer who left the Democratic Party to run for governor as an independent in 2010, was unable to rouse much voter support, finishing a distant third behind Patrick and Baker.

Republicans also point out that McCormick, despite his ability to substantially self-fund his own campaign, has a similar business and political resume to the down-ticket GOP candidates seeking other statewide office, like treasurer candidate Mike Heffernan.

"Mr. McCormick may not want to throw stones from his glass mansion because by his own accounting, he would qualify as a 'no name' or 'unknown' candidate,'" MassGOP spokeswoman Emmalee Kalmbach said in a statement.

McCormick faces his own direct competition for independent voters. Former diagnostic health company executive Evan Falchuk is running for governor as an independent and seeking to establish his own United Independent Party.

Falchuk last year told the News Service that McCormick's ties to Malone lead him to believe Baker is McCormick's main target. He said, "I look at what he's doing as really a pseudo-Republican thing, that there was sort of a primary without a primary happening."