1 Baker and Coakley 1

Last night’s big governor debate, sponsored by WBZ-TV, occupied an odd space in this intensifying campaign. The momentous events of the campaign are taking place elsewhere ; the movement of most unions to Coakley, the now infamous Children’s Defense Fund PAC ad, the attention being paid by Baker to Springfield, the gender gap, on both sides, between the two candidates. These are the actions now driving voters’ decisions – and believe me, they are deciding. Tons of twitters followers for Baker — fewer for Coakley — have risen seemingly from nowhere : ordinary voters, not political insiders. Nor is twitter, of course, the only arena of decision or even the biggest.

So ; did anything at all happen in the WBZ debate to match any of the above ? Perhaps. Baker’s twitter following grew significantly; Coakley’s too. The debate moved some voters from undecided to decided, or from decided to committed.

Personally,l found the debate quite boring. Baker often delved into administrative details, as if he were presenting to a policy seminar. Coakley said very little that was specific — she never does — but said it in a conversational voice, a fireside chat manner less formal than the wonk-y Baker, who lacked his trademark smile and showed almost none of what opponents call “Charming Charlie.” If only Steve Grossman had been on that stage, to deliver his articulate, masterful policy points in a voice passionate and fun ! He is very much missed.

Baker had the better night. It was classy o him — and smart — to say to Coakley that ‘no one is challenging your record as a child advocate across a long and distinguished career in public service.” I can’t recall ever seeing a candidate give such a kudo to an opponent on a debate stage : and if after the very mistaken Children’s Defense Fund ad a kudo was needed, it was not a given that Baker would say it. But he did.

Baker also laid out his basic theme — transforming the often inefficient, even incompetent management of state administration — with full authority. (As he always does.) He discussed the particulars of the Springfield economy, including siting of its casino, with Grossman-like thoroughness. The Springfield theme has come to the fore in Baker’s campaign for two reasons ; on the small scale, it’s usually a 20-point loss for a Republican candidate : Baker hopes to get close, maybe win the city. Just as significantly “Springfield” is the symbol of how Baker addresses one of this year’s major governor issues : raising up the economies of the estate’s cities outside the Boston economy boom.

Coakley offered no equivalent. I’m not sure she grasps the significance of Baker’s Springfield theme.

Coakley offered few specific points but doesn’t really need any. She is a Democrat and a woman.

She spent much time addressing herself not to Baker buy to Evan Falchuk, an “independent” who stood immediately to her left (the candidates being lined up alphabetically). Granted that Evan Falchuk had much to say that was critical of both the major candidates — and of state government. I think dhe did this in order to deflect attention from Baker and give it to Falchuk, the independent. If so, it was a smart move : “independents” comprise 52% of Massachusetts voters and will be the overwhelming majority of Baker’s vote if he wins.

But Baker made the strongest, directest, and, as I see it, most convincing statement about independence : that much of the failure on Beacon Hill is attributable to having only one party, the Democrats, in charge of every branch. There has been much to criticize about state administration during Deval Patrick’s second term, and much to correct as it has taken place; yet neither the criticism nor much correction have happened because it’s in no Democrat’s interest to go that route (although Steve Grossman went that route at many pre-Primary Forums).

Baker is on solid ground here. Massachusetts voters usually prefer to elect non-Democrats as governor in order to keep a watchdog eye on one-party rule. The state has worked well thereby, not so well under the popular but sometimes ineffectual Patrick.

On that point alone, Baker won the debate. That’s what happens when you make a key governance point that everyone agrees is true. Coakley made no such point, but she too had her victory, because she is, yes, a woman in a state that has yet to elect a woman governor.

And both candidates won by not being Scott Lively. His bigotry, stupidity, and just plain gutter venom made everyone else on stage look ten times nobler. hHw the other candidates could stand on that stage and not vomit in Lively’s face, I do not know. I applaud their self-control. I could not have managed it.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere