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Berwick, Grossman work to sharpen distinctions with Coakley in TV debate

With the Sept. 9 primary looming, Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls Don Berwick and Steve Grossman worked to sharpen distinctions with frontrunner Martha Coakely in a televised debate that aired on Sunday. And while both aimed to tell voters what made them different than the attorney general, the forum lacked the bitterness that pervaded a debate last week.

Berwick, a former federal health care official, emphasized he was the only party candidate to support the repeal of the state’s casino gambling law and to back a move to a single-payer health care system, and he painted his rivals as agents of the status quo at the WBZ-TV forum. Grossman, the state treasurer, underlined his private-sector, job-creation bona fides, reprising contrasts both have used before.

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Coakley, for her part, stayed mostly above the fray. She spoke broadly about moving the state forward, echoing themes she has put front and center since launching her gubernatorial bid last year. By investing in the state’s children and workforce, she said, “we can turn this economy around for everybody, in every section of the state, and be prosperous and fair.”

When a discussion of how to make the state more business-friendly turned to health care costs, Berwick and Grossman both criticized Coakley’s decision to allow Partners HealthCare to acquire South Shore Hospital and Hallmark Health System instead of filing a lawsuit to stop the merger, an issue that has been a flashpoint at previous debates.

“The attorney general’s deal with Partners is an example of going in the wrong direction, raising health care costs by acceding to the wishes of, essentially, a monopoly,” Bewick said at the half-hour debate, which was taped on Friday and moderated by the station’s longtime political analyst, Jon Keller.

Grossman noted that the state’s Health Policy Commission has said the deal with Partners, Massachusetts’ largest hospital and doctors network, would increase costs that would go “on the backs of families and small businesses.”

Coakley said she stood by the agreement — which still must be approved by a judge — and insisted it “does level the playing field” for competitors. If put into force, the deal would impose some price controls and work to limit the huge company’s bargaining power.

On Labor Day weekend, the candidates also spoke about unions.

Berwick said that he sees organized labor as a key force standing up for the rights of people who need a voice, and that he hopes to see enrollment in unions grow in Massachusetts. “I think stronger labor is better for us all around,” he said.

Coakley, who has picked up a number of endorsements from powerful local labor groups, lauded unions generally and said “we’ve been lucky in Massachusetts to have strong labor unions.”

Grossman, who ran his family’s envelope and marketing business for decades, noted his business is a union shop and said he is a big believer in giving workers who want to unionize that right.

“When you hire people, treat them well, give them good benefits. . . you get productivity, craftsmanship, loyalty,” he said.

The winner of the Democratic primary will face four rivals on the Nov. 4 general election ballot: the Republican nominee — either former health care executive Charlie Baker or businessman Mark R. Fisher — and three independent candidates: venture capital investor Jeff McCormick, former businessman Evan Falchuk, and Christian pastor Scott Lively.

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.
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