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JEFF JACOBY

Running from the ‘R’ word

All five candidates posed for a photo before participating in Tuesday’s WBZ-TV debate.
All five candidates posed for a photo before participating in Tuesday’s WBZ-TV debate. Associated Press

If Attorney General Martha Coakley uttered the word “Republican” even once in last night’s gubernatorial debate, I missed it. For a Democrat running in one of the nation’s bluest states, it was a mystifying omission.

After all, most Massachusetts voters would rather crawl through broken glass than vote for the candidate with the “R” after his name. That is why Charlie Baker’s second campaign for governor has so clearly been built on a strategy of being the sort of Republican Massachusetts voters can feel at ease with — one who supports a socially liberal, activist government, but promises to run it more efficiently than it’s been run under Deval Patrick.

Baker found opportunities to show the softer persona he hopes will win over skeptical Democrats. He told Coakley graciously at one point: “No one is challenging your record as a child advocate across a long and distinguished career in public service.” That was deft and diplomatic, considering that an independent PAC backing Baker has been running a TV ad that brutally challenges Coakley’s record on exactly that ground: She “tried to silence children’s advocates,” the spot intones; “Martha Coakley failed our most vulnerable citizens.”

Nothing so harsh came out of Baker’s mouth last night. Instead there was plenty of forgettable boilerplate talk about how Beacon Hill in recent years “took its eye off the ball” and how the next governor should be a “weed-whacker” focused on data. When he did say something strong and quotable, it was an eight-word pledge: “Taxes under a Baker administration will go down.”

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Will voters believe that? Should voters believe anything these candidates say? Running for governor in 2006, Patrick insisted that property taxes would go down on his watch. Eight years later, property taxes are a lot higher. Baker’s political mentor, Bill Weld, vowed in 1990 to resist then-Senate President Bill Bulger and the culture of corrupt cronyism he embodied. Then he won the Corner Office and reinvented himself as Bulger’s best pal.

So take it all with a large dose of salt, voters. Debates like last night’s can be entertaining, but as a roadmap to the next administration, they are woefully inadequate.

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Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.