Politics

analysis

Baker, Coakley find endearing tone, but only at debate’s end

Charlie Baker and Martha Coakley met in another debate in their campaign for governor.
Associated Press
Charlie Baker and Martha Coakley met in another debate in their campaign for governor.

If the coda to Monday night’s debate provided any indication of the final week before the election, perhaps there is redemption for this gubernatorial campaign after all.

In the early going, the Worcester debate, the second-to-last before next Tuesday’s election, offered viewers affirmation of all the reasons they’ve amassed over the past several months for why they should not vote for Republican Charlie Baker or Democrat Martha Coakley. His part in a controversial deal with the New Jersey state pension fund. Suggestions, disputed, that she had taken a powder on going after convicted former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi because of political considerations. Rehashed accusations that both candidates could have done more to protect endangered children.

And then, in the closing 10 minutes of the debate, something of the personalities that have made devotees of people who know them each personally – and which were fatally lacking in both of their previous high-profile runs – came through.

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Required to confine their answers to “yes” or “no,” both struggled with the format. But Coakley showed the sense of humor that she says people missed about her character during her failed 2010 Senate race. And Baker, who has endeavored to bury the seemingly angry persona of his own doomed run in 2010 for governor, conveyed a lightheartedness still sometimes missing in his public appearances.

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Has either of them ever smoked marijuana, queried moderator Latoyia Edwards of NECN. “No,” Coakley replied quickly. Baker, ruefully, and to laughs, gave a drawn-out “Yes.”

Coakley reassured him that the statute of limitations on that had expired.

Would there be a place for Coakley in a Baker administration, he was asked. Coakley preempted him with a witty, “No.” Baker laughed, rocking his upper body forward toward his podium.

“That was really good, by the way,” he said.

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While the closing moments of the debate were mostly amicable the rest of the debate was anything but. The debate began rockily for Baker, the first roughly six minutes largely keyed on allegations that he engaged in a pay-to-play deal with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as part of Baker’s work at a Cambridge-based venture capital firm.

When Edwards asked Baker whether he regretted writing a $10,000 donation to the Republican Governors Association, which Christie chairs, shortly before the Garden State pension fund entered into a $15 million deal with Baker’s firm, General Catalyst, Baker replied, “Well, yeah!”

Coakley, too, had to answer questions about her own record, these stemming from a Sunday Globe story that reported allegations she had taken it easy on DiMasi. Baker pressed her over her response to the allegations by a former Democratic state representative and inspector general, Gregory Sullivan, who now works as research director at the Pioneer Institute, which Baker helped start.

Such opposition research has characterized much of the campaign, and lands harshly on the ears of an electorate tuckered out by, now, five statewide elections since the start of 2010. The cycle has already been marked by a glut of negative ads, particularly from the super PACs that have sprung up to back both candidates.

If viewers weren’t aware that Democrats look askance — or profess to — at Baker’s private-sector service before Monday, they heard another reminder from Coakley. And if they were somehow ignorant of Republican lamentations that Coakley is too connected to Beacon Hill, there was Baker to hammer home that idea.

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Monday night offered little in the way of either candidate laying out policy prescriptions for the state, although each took rhetorical detours to elucidate in some detail their hopes for infrastructure projects in Worcester, an area of the state whose voters often feel neglected by the Boston-centric political establishment.

It wasn’t until the closing moments that either candidate really turned with vigor to the task that each camp acknowledges is its existential challenge: reassuring voters that they won’t mind four years of the person who will take the reins of state government in January. Then, Coakley smiled winningly and Baker guffawed inoffensively, and for the most part they shelved the acrimony that has bubbled up between them.

But while the debate’s final segment marked one of the most collegial exchanges of the campaign, there was also a reminder of what both candidates’ political futures will look like, should they wake up on Nov. 5 a loser.

Asked if they would run for office in the future if they did not prevail next week, Baker and Coakley had the same answer: “No.”

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