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^ precise vs. pleasant : Charlie Baker answers, Martha Coakley listens at U-Mass South Coast campus debate

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Because Charlie Baker remains a bit less well known by the voters than Martha Coakley, he won the debate simply by showing up and expressing his views precisely and clearly.

That’s a given. The lesser known candidate always wins the first big debate.

But now to the debate itself, which took place at University of Massachusetts’s Dartmouth campus, on the South Coast. Whom you think won depends on what you want from the next governor. If you think that state administration is doing OK and has the right priorities, you probably liked Martha Coakley’s mostly content-free, conversational ramble. If you think that state government is not doing OK, or has its priorities wrong, you certainly liked charlie Baker’s passionate, clear statements of what is wrong on Beacon Hill, and throughout Massachusetts as a result, and what he will do about it.

Which of these two vastly opposite presentations was liked by more debate watchers, I cannot tell. i can only speak for myself, as one who has journo’d state administration matters constantly all year long and attended more than two dozen governor candidate Forums, starting last January. For me, the debate was a knockout by Baker.

On clarity of presentation, it was all Baker.

On knowledge of the issues, and on what has gone wrong, or right, regarding them, it was all Baker.

On political tune, it was mostly Baker. Who advised Coakley to call Baker “my Republican opponent,” as a bad thing, on stage in a part of Massachusetts that is rapidly trending toward a Republican voting majority ? Martha, listen to me : New Bedford and Bristol County are NOT Watertown and Cambridge…

On debate points, Baker simply blew Coakley away. She attacked his administration of the Big Dig, saying that its cost overruns were the reason that the long-delayed South Coast Rail project can’t get funded. Baker’s response ? “Those overruns resulted from a large shortfall of Federal funding during the Clinton administration, for which we had to make up the difference.”


Coakley also didn’t seem to realize — if so, she never said it — that much of the delay holding back the South Coast rail line comes from stalled environmental impact examination of the project, by both Beacon Hill and the Federal government, as a result of which the permits to build it can’t be granted. Baker did know, and cited them.


Having been knocked out twice, Coakley wisely gave up attacking Baker, shifting instead to the conversational ramble in which she feels most comfortable, seeming to answer the moderator’s specific question by not answering; instead, chatting generalities about “focusing on people.”

It worked for Coakley in the primary, where she defeated — barely — Steve Grossman, a candidate even more knowledgeable than Baker, and with plenty of excellent policy proposals. But Grossman was unknown, three weeks before primary, by a full 25 percent of voters. Baker is unknown only by ten percent, and by election day he will be unknown by very few. Grossman, quite less known as he was, came within six points of beating Coakley on primary day.

Like Coakley, Baker smartly shifted his debate ground. Coakley began with her strongest suit : citing the local, South Coast’s economy in keeping with her “16 economic regions” policy. The debate audience liked what they heard. Before long Baker also began to answer the moderator’s questions with a South Coast, regional focus, and his command of them proved stronger than Coakley’s. She must have noticed, because during the hour-long debate’s second half, regional examples disappeared from her answers.

At least 500 people filled the U-Mass auditorium. Not long ago, the governor campaign engaged only activists. Today, it engages almost everyone. We’ll know the result of it soon enough.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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