Politics

analysis

Closing arguments emerge in gubernatorial debate

There were no knockdowns, knockouts, or even really any knockabouts, nothing to tectonically reshape a campaign that’s still a toss-up with two weeks left.

Tuesday night’s debate between Republican Charlie Baker and Democrat Martha Coakley revealed what those who have been following the largely uneventful race already knew: that the two candidates are serious people who approach government thoughtfully.

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And that neither of them would spend the next four – or eight -- years transfixing television audiences with virtuoso performances or fireworks displays of personality.

Both turned in stolid, unstumbling performances, their most notable joint puzzlement occurring when they were asked to name who would play the campaign’s two top candidates in a movie. That may be the very definition of a no-win question.

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Neither seized the moment to call on the respective outside groups running negative ads against their opponents to pull them from the airwaves; both criticized Gov. Deval Patrick’s quiet shift of 500 state managers into a public employee union, offering them raises and job protection under the next administration.

With two weeks to go, the first time Baker and Coakley went head-to-head without the three unenrolled candidates also offered a chance for them to unveil their closing arguments.

Coakley made what could safely be called The Patrick Prosecution – that the opponent, despite being a nice guy, would be guided toward policies by a misguided set of beliefs. “Who do you see? … It’s about the values that drive your choices,” she said. Litigating Baker that way worked brilliantly for Patrick four years ago.

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It’s a polite way of getting at what Baker acknowledged bothers him the most about his public perception: “that I care about numbers and I don’t care about people.” It’s also a tidy argument to make against a man who has been photographed in a tuxedo clutching an “Outsourcing Excellence Award.”

And it helps Coakley connect with voters on a more fundamental and visceral level, something lacking markedly in her only previous top-of-the-ticket race.

What came across with Baker is much of what has distinguished him, beyond sheer ideological deviations, from the national Republican Party. Democrats like to say that Republicans don’t like government and that they do, they’re happy tinkering with its machinery, swapping out engine parts.

Baker, too, enjoys the policy-puttering – witness his detailed responses on reforming the courts and the Department of Children and Families, or on paid sick leave.

Both also fell victim to reinforcing their own preexisting negative public images. Baker described himself as “wildly overthinking” his response to a Supreme Court case affecting women’s access to birth control and as “a guy who is pretty facile at math,” probably not the best self-characterizations for someone who has a reputation for coming across as ideologically superior.

Baker also made an anecdote about a ridealong to a youth football game with a Boston police sergeant sound like something of an anthropological exercise in a foreign land. As Baker arduously makes his bid for a best-in-a-generation performance among urban voters and those of color, that was a discordant moment.

“I’m glad you got the ridealong, Charlie,” Coakley needled.

Meanwhile, Coakley, who began her speech at the June party convention with a solemn apology for her subpar 2010 Senate campaign, reminded voters of their perception from that race that she is humorless. And, aside from one winning quip at Baker’s expense – “Just don’t call me sweetheart” – did little to change it.

And Coakley also did little to dispel the rap on her as a candidate unwilling to commit to positions. Pressed after a virtual non-answer to a question about how she would fund her spending priorities, she feinted toward a graduated income tax, highly popular on the left, but continued to shy from outright embracing it.

“I’m just saying it’s under study right now, I’m not saying I’ve adopted any of those ideas,” she told reporters after the debate.

That may give pause to voters who remember Patrick’s refusal during the 2010 election to say he would propose new broad-based taxes, before proposing $1.9 billion in new taxes with two years left in his second term – including on incomes.

The exchange on taxes may have been Baker’s best scene of the night. In keeping with his perils-of-one-party-rule theme, Baker pointed out that Democrats who say they don’t want to hike taxes on the middle class have done just that over the past several years: on gas, sales, satellite TVs, property, and with fees for afterschool sports.

“I think the middle class feels strapped already,” Baker said.

Beyond offering viewing voters a fairly complete picture of Baker’s and Coakley’s governing philosophies, the hour-long session broke little new ground. But when the 2014 gubernatorial campaign is autopsied, Tuesday’s debate will offer a telling description of who survived and why.

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at Jim.OSullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.
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