By Matt Murphy

State House News Service

BOSTON -- Republican candidate for governor Charlie Baker faces an uphill climb against the leading Democratic candidates in 2014, trailing both Attorney General Martha Coakley and Treasurer Steven Grossman by double digits very early in the race, according to a new poll.

The Western New England University poll cemented Coakley's starting position as the candidate to beat in 2014, buoyed by her strong name recognition and relative popularity with 52 percent of respondents registering a favorable opinion of the prosecutor.

Coakley led Baker 54 percent to 34 percent in a hypothetical matchup, with 10 percent of registered voters undecided, while Grossman held a 43-30 lead over the likely GOP nominee. Twenty-five percent of voters said they would be undecided if the general election choice came down to Grossman and Baker.

Few of the candidates are strongly pushing concrete policy ideas, instead spending the early months of the campaign raising money, meeting with supporters and establishing campaign themes.

Running on a "Let's be great, Massachusetts" slogan, Baker plans to emphasize creating jobs, improving schools and "community building" as priorities. The non-controversial objectives are shared by Baker's competitors and most voters, but Baker believes he can distinguish himself by focusing on them.

"I'm running for governor, I'm not running against anybody," Baker said during a WATD-FM interview Monday night. "I'm going to spend my time listening to people and touring the Commonwealth and hearing what they have to say..."

The poll was conducted Oct. 1 - Oct. 7 and surveyed 431 registered voters. The margin of error was 5 percent.

Though the poll did not test any of the six Democratic candidates for governor against each other, everyone with the exception of Coakley suffered from a lack of name recognition, highlighting the early challenges for many of the candidates to introduce themselves to voters.

"These numbers provide benchmarks against which to compare future surveys in the contest," said Tim Vercellotti, director of the Polling Institute and a political science professor at Western New England. "There's no question that Democrats hold an early advantage, but 13 months is an eternity in politics and a lot can happen during that time."

While only 19 percent of those surveyed said they hadn't heard of or had no opinion of Coakley, 63 percent said the same of Grossman and 79 percent were unfamiliar with Sen. Daniel Wolf, who has suspended his campaign as he challenges an ethics ruling barring him from holding the office because of his ownership of Cape Air.

Over 80 percent were unfamiliar with former Obama Medicare and Medicaid chief Donald Berwick, former homeland security official Juliette Kayyem and biotechnology executive Joseph Avellone.

Despite running for governor in 2010 and losing to Gov. Deval Patrick by just 6 points, 56 percent of voters also said they did not know or had no opinion of Baker; 26 percent viewed him favorably and 14 percent unfavorably.

Coakley held a 49-39 advantage over Baker among independents, the biggest single group of voters in Massachusetts, while Baker led Grossman in that category 37 percent to 32 percent. Coakley also distinguished herself among women voters, leading Baker 61-30 compared to Grossman's 43-26 edge among women over Baker.

A Public Policy Polling poll taken after Coakley announced her campaign for governor showed the attorney general as the leading candidate among Democrats, holding a 51 percent to 38 percent lead over Baker. Grossman, however, polled higher in that survey against Baker, his one-point lead falling within the margin of error.

Gov. Patrick enjoyed some of his strongest approval ratings since becoming governor, with 64 percent of registered voters approving of the job the governor is doing compared with 26 percent who disapprove. Fifty-six percent of voters polled also said they thought the state was going in the right direction, while 35 percent said it was on the wrong track despite the economy slowing down in recent months and the unemployment rate ticking up close to the national average at 7.2 percent.

The approval numbers are the highest they've been for Patrick in a Western New England poll since the first months of his second term, but could have something to do with opinions of Patrick being taken immediately following questions about the government shutdown.

"We may be in an era of good feelings, so to speak, about the current state of affairs in Massachusetts," Vercellotti said. "Or, voters may simply see the state in a more positive light when they contrast what is happening here with the events that are unfolding in Washington."

With an overwhelming majority of Massachusetts voters placing the blame for the partial government shutdown on Congressional Republicans, the survey also offered interesting insights into their thinking on the health care reform law at the center of the disagreement in Washington.

Sixty-two percent of those polled said they supported the federal health reform law that Republicans would like to defund or delay, while 31 percent opposed the Affordable Care Act. The numbers show a marked spike in support for the controversial law since its passage when 46 percent supported the law and 47 percent opposed it in April 2010, a month after President Obama signed it into law.

Still, only 20 percent said they thought health care reform would improve the quality of care, while 29 percent said it would reduce quality and 48 percent said it would make no difference.

Eighty percent also said they believed health reform would either increase the amount they pay for health care or make no difference, while 15 percent said it would lower costs. Forty-seven percent said it would increase prices.