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JOAN VENNOCHI

Walsh shows his humanity

John Connolly won on classic debate points, especially during the second half of Tuesday’s showdown with challenger Marty Walsh.

But there’s a Tom Menino-like humanity about Walsh that gives him an outside shot at becoming the next mayor of Boston.

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You could picture Menino — or predecessor Ray Flynn — offering an answer like Walsh gave, when he and Connolly were asked a second time to explain the key difference between them: “I understand the struggles of kids in our city,” said Walsh, speaking in the old-fashioned Boston accent that’s fading from this town.

Walsh is the son of Irish immigrants. He overcame cancer and alcoholism, marking him with what consultants like to call “authenticity.’’ But the Dorchester lawmaker also has an albatross around his neck and Connolly made sure it stayed there. It’s the bill Walsh filed on Beacon Hill that would make an arbitrator’s ruling final in a labor dispute. Throughout the mayoral campaign, Walsh has tried to argue that his positive relationships with labor unions would allow him to successfully negotiate city contracts, and thus avoid arbitration. But last night, he barely bothered to rebut Connolly’s jibes on the subject. Either he’s aiming for the nice-guy vote, or he accepts the arbitration bill as a losing cause that’s best to ignore.

Take away Walsh’s identity as “the labor guy” and voters have a choice between two candidates who each promise longer school days, more diversity, and better public transit. Neither said how they would pay for new services.

Connolly successfully controlled the picture of who he is: former teacher, devoted parent, and City Council budget expert. No one — including Walsh — pressed the teacher-turned-lawyer for details about his legal clients or why so much of Boston’s downtown business community supports his candidacy.

Connolly has a plan for every problem and his ability to rattle them off is a debate winner. But you don’t get the feeling he has experienced many problems in his own life — and life experience gives Walsh a small opening in the weeks ahead.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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