Politics

In last big debate, Coakley, Baker show emotional side

Late into the one-hour clash, the debate took a surprising turn on what seemed like a throwaway question: When was the last time you cried?
WCVB-TV (left)/AP
Late into the one-hour clash, the debate took a surprising turn on what seemed like a throwaway question: When was the last time you cried?

In a debate both feisty and emotional — with Republican Charlie Baker at one point near tears — the contenders for Massachusetts governor took their final swipes at each other’s jobs plan, alleged ethical missteps, and the values that would drive each in office.

Early on Tuesday evening, Baker and Attorney General Martha Coakley were restrained, careful to avoid missteps on the last big debate stage before the Nov. 4 vote. They broke scant new ground on policy, and knocked each other with well-worn attacks that have little relation to the daily lives of voters.

Baker, as he had in Monday’s debate, jabbed Coakley over a report that the attorney general tried to undermine an investigation into disgraced Salvatore F. DiMasi, former House speaker. Coakley counterpunched over Baker’s political donation to the New Jersey Republican Party in 2011, which Baker critics see as part of a pay-to-play scheme benefiting a company linked to Baker.

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But late into the one-hour clash, the debate took a surprising turn on what seemed like a throwaway question:

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When was the last time you cried?

“Oh, boy,” said Coakley. “Actually today.” She said she had attended a memorial service for a union organizer, John Laughlin, from the Painters Local 35, who died of leukemia. “My mom died from leukemia. I had a special bond with John.”

Baker, answering the same question, warned, “I may not make it through this story,” and then talked about a burly fisherman “soaked in sweat and salt water” he had met on the campaign trail who cried when Baker asked him about a fishing industry that has struggled under federal regulation.

Baker’s voice faltered and he briefly stopped to rub his eyes, while recalling the fisherman’s tale of preventing his sons from taking athletic scholarships, insisting they, too, become fishermen.

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“And I ruined their lives,” Baker said, quoting the fisherman.

At that point, the candidate composed himself and said to Coakley, you “hear those kinds of stories every day; it’s a big part of why people like you and me get into public service. Because we want to help people like that.”

For two candidates mocked as charisma-challenged technobots, their answers revealed a sense of humanity behind the policy positions and attack lines that each rattles off by rote.

TV debates are high-stakes events because of the potential of a major gaffe, which neither candidate stumbled into on Tuesday. But debates so close to an election can be critical for candidates in tight contests because they offer a chance to connect with undecided voters, tuning into the race for the first time and poised to make up their minds. Two of the most recently released polls found that 8 percent of likely voters remain undecided in the race.

For much of the debate, both candidates stayed anchored in familiar talking points that they have repeated again and again on the campaign trail and in television ads.

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Coakley appeared at times to needle her Republican opponent and get under his skin. Baker at turns seemed exasperated, at one point quarreling with WCVB-TV’s Janet Wu, one of the moderators.

But in a lightning round of quick questions and answers as the clock ticked down on the forum, there was laughter, a high five, and answers that revealed something more than a poll-tested policy word salad.

Both said they would rather win the election than a lottery jackpot. Baker admitted he is clueless in the kitchen, while Coakley is the family chef with a knack for Italian-style chicken. Both said socializing with friends was a hard thing to give up for the campaign, though neither would trade the experience of running for anything.

The debate, sponsored by a consortium of media outlets, was held at the WCVB-TV studios in Needham. Broadcast simultaneously on WCVB-TV, WHDH-TV, WBUR Radio, and Bloomberg Radio, the exchange had the potential to reach the largest audience of the campaign.

Independent gubernatorial candidates Evan Falchuk, Jeff McCormick, and Scott Lively were not invited to participate.

Neither Baker nor Coakley took any big risks Tuesday night, or unveiled any new and untested lines of attack.

Baker’s team went into the final broadcast debate believing he is ahead in the race, though the campaign’s internal polls show a smaller advantage than the 9-point lead Baker had in a Boston Globe poll released last week.

Other public polls have also reflected a close race.

The Republican’s debate strategy was more of the same: Continue to calmly buff up his campaign image as a competent manager who won’t raise taxes.

Coakley’s team went into the debate convinced of her campaign’s internal polls, which suggested the race is extremely close — within a percentage point or two and well within the margin of error of any traditional survey. An aide said the Democrat was not looking for a knockout, just a strong overall performance to keep her in position to win a close race with what her team believes will be a superior voter turnout effort.

But for the second night in a row, Coakley misstated a detail related to the prosecution of DiMasi, a case that has become a late-election headache for the attorney general.

Echoing a back-and-forth of Monday’s gubernatorial debate, Coakley and Baker sparred Tuesday over allegations by a former inspector general, Gregory Sullivan, including assertions that Coakley had asked him to scrap an investigation into DiMasi, three years before DiMasi was convicted in a federal corruption trial.

Coakley, who has denied Sullivan’s assertions, said she had worked with the federal government in the DiMasi case and had spent years fighting corruption.

“We convicted, by the way, Richard Vitale — state level. Investigated, prosecuted, had him in jail,” Coakley said, referring to a DiMasi friend and onetime financial adviser.

But Vitale, who was acquitted of federal corruption charges, did not go to jail. He was placed on probation for two years and was ordered to pay $92,000 after admitting to lobbying without registering as a lobbyist with the secretary of state.

Coakley clarified her comments in speaking to reporters after the debate.

“He was investigated, prosecuted, convicted,” she said. “He did not serve jail time.”

During Monday’s debate, she incorrectly said that her office prosecuted and convicted Richard McDonough, a lobbyist and DiMasi confidant. It was federal prosecutors, not the attorney general’s office, who secured that conviction.

Coakley reiterated a familiar line of attack on Baker’s $10,000 donation in 2011 to the New Jersey Republican Party, a contribution that is under investigation by the New Jersey state treasurer’s office. Baker critics have said the donation looks like part of a pay-to-play scheme, since it was followed by a $15 million investment from the New Jersey pension fund in the Cambridge venture capital firm, General Catalyst, where Baker worked.

Baker maintains he did nothing wrong, and did not hold a position at General Catalyst that would fall under regulations governing political contributions.

Coakley needled Baker on Tuesday night over his refusal to release his employment contract with the company, to prove he was not in a position covered by the regulations.

“I don’t know why you won’t be transparent,” she said.

Coakley used a ballot initiative she supports, Question 4, which would entitle workers to earn and use sick time to draw a contrast with Baker, who says he supports earned sick time but not the “one-size-fits-all” proposal on the ballot.

“I’m going to stand up for people who are working hard,” Coakley said, echoing a theme of her campaign. “He’s going to wait and see.”

Akilah Johnson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Mark Arsenault can be reached at mark.arsenault@globe.com.