One table, two candidates, two moderators asking policy questions — Tuesday’s debate was the kind of wonkathon where Republican Charlie Baker generally excels. But beneath the dutiful discussion of issues, a psychodrama brewed: Democrat Martha Coakley needed to reassure voters confounded by her 2010 Senate loss and her bizarrely contentless primary campaign this year. Baker, blessed and cursed with an image as an alpha technocrat, needed to present himself in a more genial way. Sadly for him, Coakley handled her task better than Baker did his.
Baker didn’t mention welfare, a staple of his TV ads. He stressed the similarities between his stance and Coakley’s on expanding pre-K. But flashes of testiness kept showing through: Favoritism for political insiders is “what drives people crazy,” Baker said. “It makes me nuts,” he said, to run into people harmed by federal inaction on immigration. The perception that he cares more about numbers than people is the “single biggest thing that drives me up the wall.”
Message: I care already!
Meanwhile, Coakley seems to be finishing strong. Until recently, her campaign strategy made her appear defensive. Wary of jeopardizing her front-runner status, Coakley coasted to her party’s nomination with gauzy appeals to key Democratic constituencies and vague promises to “look at” this or that. For the general election, another train wreck seemed possible. “Martha Chokeley,” a recent piece in Politico Magazine called her.
On Tuesday, though, the few laugh lines belonged to her. “Just don’t call me ‘sweetheart,’ ” Coakley said, after Baker called her “Margery” instead of “Martha.” “I’m glad you got the ride-along, Charlie,” she said, deflating his story about visiting a Pop Warner game in Dorchester with a Boston cop. Baker’s still figuring out how to challenge Coakley — just as she’s finding her way into a more comfortable groove.
For the record: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly transposed two words in a paraphrase of GOP candidate Charlie Baker. During the debate, Baker lamented the perception that the cares more about numbers than people.