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TV debate offers new test for mayoral hopefuls

Mayoral candidates Martin Walsh and John Connolly shook hands as they crossed paths in between visits to a group of sixth graders.

Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe

Mayoral candidates Martin Walsh and John Connolly shook hands as they crossed paths in between visits to a group of sixth graders.

When the Boston mayoral candidates step to their podiums for Tuesday’s 7 p.m. televised debate, the spotlight for the first time will be on them — and them alone.

While both state Representative Martin J. Walsh and City Councilor John R. Connolly were onstage in the dozens of candidates forums held during the preliminary race, those meetings held a much different dynamic where the hopefuls had little individual speaking time.

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As the last ones standing, the general election debates pit Connolly and Walsh in head-to-head matchups that political observers say will be far less forgiving than the crowded forums that occurred nearly daily during the preliminary race.

“This race is very fluid and very volatile,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist in Boston. “That’s where something like a debate — that no one can predict — becomes vital.”

Other than the preliminary race’s sole televised debate, a hectic, 12-candidate forum in which the candidates competed for mere seconds of talking time, neither Walsh nor Connolly has previously appeared in a contest on television.

Connolly has appeared in City Council at-large forums, typically crowded with at least eight candidates, in every election cycle since 2005, but his most relevant debate experience may have been decades ago when he was captain of the debate team at Roxbury Latin School.

Perhaps in an attempt to channel his long-lost debate expertise, Connolly stopped by the Boston Debate League tournament at English High School in Jamaica Plain on Friday to observe the student debaters and ask for advice.

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“I heard you did a little debating in your day?” the league’s director asked Connolly during the visit.

“Oh no, I wasn’t nearly as good as these kids” the candidate replied.

Walsh, meanwhile, will be participating in what may be his first one-on-one debate ever.

Other than his maiden run for the State House in 1997, a six-candidate special election field that included now-attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley, Walsh has never faced an electoral opponent, running unopposed in each of the last eight consecutive elections.

The debate, cohosted by the Globe and WBZ-TV, will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the television station’s studios.

According to campaign aides, both candidates spent much of the weekend prepping with staff members, honing responses to questions they anticipate being asked and planning whether to go on the attack.

As could be expected, the campaigns are relatively tight-lipped about their debate strategies. It remains to be seen how much of the electorate will tune into the forum but the predictions are pessimistic given the modest voter turnout in the preliminary vote. Complicating matters is the fact that the broadcast begins about three hours after the first pitch of Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, meaning the Red Sox game will probably be in the crucial final innings as the moderators ask their first questions.

But, with polling showing that as much as 23 percent of the electorate remains undecided on a mayoral candidate, the debates could be key, even if they are not widely watched.

The impact, political observers say, is that the head-to-head meetings will probably shape the issues and tone of media coverage for the race’s final weeks.

“Most people who are undecided or who haven’t yet started paying attention to the race are more likely to be impacted by the coverage of the debate,” said Peter Ubertaccio, chairman of the political science department at Stonehill College. “The water cooler talk the next day, and for the weeks that follow, does have an impact.”

Tuesday’s showdown, and the three subsequent debates, are expected to be far different than the two televised clashes between Menino and his challenger in 2009, Michael Flaherty.

As a city councilor who was challenging a 16-year incumbent, Flaherty was on the attack throughout both of the televised bouts, hitting Menino on education quality and public safety and painting a picture of a Boston that needed saving from the powers that be.

But Flaherty said that for Connolly and Walsh, Tuesday’s debate will probably be less about tearing down their opponent and more about making inroads with voters who may be tuning into the race for the first time.

“People will be watching the candidates to see who has progressive and innovative ideas, and a better vision to bring Boston to a level of excellence,” Flaherty said. “This is really more of an appeal to the undecided voter. These guys are locked in what seems to be a dead heat, so they’re going to have to be relaxed and try to look mayoral.”

While Flaherty and Menino squared off in just two televised debates during the 2009 race, Walsh and Connolly have agreed to four meetings.

Political observers expect this year’s mayoral debates to take a far different tone; both Connolly and Walsh are expected to praise Menino’s leadership while attempting to carve out their own distinct pathways forward.

“It’s about who can make Boston even better than it is today. That’s the real test,” Marsh said. “Whether these debates afford the opportunity for voters to see that in these candidates, we’ll see.”

Wesley Lowery can be reached at wesley.lowery@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @WesleyLowery.

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