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ANALYSIS

Gubernatorial rivals give voters a strange debate

Steven Senne/Associated Press

Again and again, Martha Coakley, through a somewhat forced smile, tried to get Charlie Baker’s goat.

By Globe Staff 

If you can’t make the voters like you more, you can certainly try to make them remember what they didn’t like about your opponent.

That appeared to be Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley’s strategy in the final televised debate of the gubernatorial campaign Tuesday, when she – with some effectiveness – repeatedly lured Republican Charlie Baker into flashing his churlishness, the side that Baker has consistently called his most lasting regret from his failed 2010 campaign against Governor Deval Patrick.

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Again and again, Coakley, through a somewhat forced smile, tried to get Baker’s goat. On why he won’t release his employment record from a Cambridge-based venture capital firm, or call for the release of an investigation into whether he engaged in a New Jersey pay-to-play deal.

On why he’s backed off a no-new-taxes pledge from his earlier campaign. On whether he sent jobs overseas while running the Harvard Pilgrim turnaround, a charge Baker repeatedly denied.

On how his refusal to sign a pact limiting outside spending has created the deluge of negative TV ads in the campaign’s final weeks.

“The attorney general is completely without credibility” on the topic of outside spending, Baker shot back.

Polls consistently show that Baker enjoys a marked advantage in favorability ratings over Coakley, so it stands to reason that, with one week remaining, the attorney general would seek to prosecute him as unlikable, to ask the jury of voters to decide that the prospect of four years with him as governor is a grim one.

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But Baker may have undone all of that late in the hourlong debate when he broke down discussing the plight of a New Bedford fisherman who confessed to him that, by demanding that his two sons adhere to the family tradition and make an arduous living on the sea, “I ruined their lives.”

It was as raw a display of emotion as can be seen from a serious contender for high office, and perhaps a signal moment for a candidate who has consistently struggled to find the right tone to convey that he sees beyond financial data sheets.

For voters distrustful of wild swings in passion – from angry at one point in the debate and then lachrymose the next – Baker’s show of emotion may have made those voters less likely to break his way.

For those who place a premium on empathy, and may have recalled a Baker from four years ago who at times seemed to lack any, it may have been the crucial moment when Baker closed the deal.

It was a strange debate. Baker and Coakley high-fived when Coakley correctly named the Patriots backup quarterback. They both gave wandering answers to a question about Ebola preparedness and mixed responses to whether they should be considered political insiders or outsiders. The outsider mantle is seen as an upside in the current political climate, but that claim would be difficult for either of them to make.

While Baker’s alternatively surly and sentimental sides both came out, Coakley, too, reinforced voter perceptions of herself.

She showed viewers why she has earned a reputation on the campaign trail for excessive caution.

At one point that bordered on parody, Coakley refused to answer a question about whether as governor she would raise fees in lieu of increasing taxes. She then took a whack at former governor Mitt Romney, who raised fees, before pressing Baker on whether he would.

“I’m not going to raise fees,” Baker said, repeating his earlier answer. “Then I’m not going to raise fees,” Coakley said.

Later, she told reporters, “I was trying to make a joke. It wasn’t the best one I’ve ever made.”

Asked during the debate by moderator Janet Wu of WCVB-TV to account for a purported six-month delay after learning of improprieties involving then-House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, Coakley said she “categorically” denied the time lag. But she declined to offer details about what her office knew, and when she knew it.

“We had information at several points during the stage,” she demurred.

For the second night in a row she misstated the facts in cases against two DiMasi allies. She said Tuesday that Richard J. Vitale had been put behind bars as a result of her actions. In fact, Coakley ultimately did not seek jail time in the Vitale case, and the DiMasi friend received two years’ probation after admitting he lobbied without properly registering as a lobbyist.

Coakley acknowledged the discrepancy when she met with reporters following the debate.


Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at James.OSullivan@
globe.com

Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.