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Why did US Representative Joe Kennedy III skip a forum on climate change?

Call it a smart bet that the race to unseat Senator Edward J. Markey is bigger than the Green New Deal and the young left-leaning activists who embrace it.

Kennedy, 39, was a no-show at a Sunday forum, hosted by Stonehill College, leaving Markey, 73, able to pitch himself as a New Age climate revolutionary. Yet, even without Kennedy, the event was no slam-dunk for the incumbent. Markey faced tough criticism from challenger Shannon Liss-Riordan, who called him out for a lack of legislative progress on environmental issues during his 43 years in Washington. “It’s been a long time, there’s been a lot of talk and not much action, and that is why I think we need new leaders in Congress,” said Liss-Riordan, the third candidate in this nationally watched primary race,

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Kennedy couldn’t have said it better himself. And by not being there, he didn’t have to. Meanwhile, his excuse for not attending was silly, something about poor timing due to ongoing impeachment proceedings against President Trump. Clearly, he didn’t go because he didn’t think it was necessary.

The Markey campaign quickly jumped on Kennedy’s decision to duck rather than engage. This was an opportunity “to elevate this climate change issue, when there’s a growing movement across the country, notably led by young, teenage leaders, who are sick of delays out of Washington,” said John Walsh, Markey’s senior campaign director. "I appreciate that someone who’s ahead in the polls will do a rope-a-dope or Rose Garden strategy, whatever you want to call it. " But given the urgency of the subject, “it’s hard for me to understand why some kind of mañana strategy makes sense," added Walsh.

Politically, it does make sense for Kennedy, the perceived front-runner, to define the race on his terms, not Markey’s. Like Markey, he supports the Green New Deal. But, as Kennedy told an audience in Northampton over the weekend, “The idea that this race is a referendum on the Green New Deal, a piece of legislation that I signed onto on day one, is not the case. I fundamentally don’t think that’s an accurate way of portraying what I believe this race is about."

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What Kennedy does think the race is about was illustrated by a Friday campaign stop in Springfield, where he picked up an endorsement from state Senator Eric P. Lesser of Longmeadow and pledged support for a high-speed rail link to Boston.

Much of the state’s Democratic establishment is aligned with Markey, including 120 members of the Legislature. But, Lesser, 34, said he’s backing Kennedy because “I think people are hungry for something new. . . . I do think there is a strong argument for a generational change. . . . He represents a vision and energy for the future that’s very exciting." Of course, it helps that Kennedy pledged support for the Springfield-to-Boston rail project, which Lesser and other Western Massachusetts officials see as key to revitalizing that jobs-starved part of the state.

Environmental issues are important to voters. But in a statewide Senate race, other issues matter, too. According to a recent Suffolk University poll, climate change ranked third on the list of voter priorities — behind schools and health care, and tied with the economy. When asked specifically about the Green New Deal, only 9 percent of those surveyed ranked it as a priority. Yet in a pitch to the youth vote and environmental activists, Markey is pushing himself as far left as possible with the Green New Deal.

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Of course, as a matter of optics, Markey needs to be associated with young climate change leaders much more than Kennedy does. Kennedy’s betting that over time, those young people won’t hold his absence against him — and he may be right.


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