In their final televised debate of a long, heated campaign, the four candidates for governor tonight sharpened their messages and political profiles for voters, presenting clear choices on taxes, spending, immigration, and even lessons learned from the Big Dig.
The debate, which set the stage for a week-long sprint to Election Day next Tuesday, distilled the major themes that have defined the 2010 gubernatorial election. Although the candidates seemed testier after enduring each other's charges for 15 months, the overall mood was largely restrained, at times even cordial.
None of the four broke new policy ground. Each was put on the defensive. All had their good moments, and their weak ones.
Governor Deval Patrick pushed his theme that he has successfully led the state out of a recession through strategic investments in health care, education, and economic development.
"We didn't cause this global collapse, and nobody's working harder to get us out of it," he said.
But Patrick was forced to deflect criticism from Republican rival Charles D. Baker over raising taxes, failing to make necessary government reforms, and a loss of jobs over his first term. Baker challenged the governor on the most recent jobs report, which showed that Massachusetts had slipped, losing 24,000 jobs in August and September.
"You gotta be real about what's really going on out there," Baker said.
But Baker was also on his heels when questioned by moderator Charles Gibson about a newly leaked memo on the Big Dig that he wrote as the state's chief fiscal officer in 1998, in which Baker suggested that he knew the project's costs were going to rise dramatically, and that it would crowd out other transportation projects, as critics always contended.
Independent Timothy P. Cahill, who is trailing Patrick and Baker in the polls, sought to stake out his own territory as the lone voice of the working class who understands the struggle of small business owners. The Green-Rainbow candidate, Jill Stein, attacked Patrick from the left, saying she was the only candidate with no ties to special interests.
The debate, sponsored by a six-member media consortium that includes WHDH, NECN, WBUR, WGBH, and the Globe, was held around a table at WCVB-TV studios in Needham, the last of a series of debates and forums throughout the campaign.
The toughest exchanges came over Baker’s role in financing the Big Dig.
Gibson asked Baker if he was contradicting himself as the state’s chief budget officer in 1998, when he said publicly that the Big Dig would not take money from other road and bridge projects. In private, he wrote an August 1998 memo, reported Sunday by the Associated Press, that expressed concern that spending on the Big Dig was “simply amazing" and could crowd out other things.
But Baker suggested in the memo waiting until “after November 5” -- or two days after Election Day -- to consider a politically unpopular proposal that included cuts in statewide road and bridge spending and withdrawing $300 million from the state’s rainy day fund.
Tonight, Baker maintained that the Big Dig did not shortchange other road and bridge projects around the state. “It’s not a contradiction,” he said.
Then he addressed Patrick, trying to change the subject to the estimated $2 billion budget deficit for next year, which he has accused Patrick of ignoring: “I certainly hope somebody’s writing a memo to you.”
But Patrick kept up the attack on the Big Dig. “We all knew the financing plan was flawed from the start,” Patrick said. “It turns out Charlie knew it was flawed from the start and for political reasons didn’t make that public. I am very reluctant to take fiscal advice from the architect of the Big Dig financing plan.”
Patrick then found himself fending off attacks on immigration. Seizing on the hot-button issue, Baker criticized Patrick for reversing Governor Mitt Romney's 2006 policy that deputized 30 specially trained State Police troopers to detain illegal immigrants. Patrick said he was concerned that such policies ensnare legal immigrants.
But Baker argued that legal immigrants want tougher crackdowns on illegal immigrants. He said he had visited with some of them in Brockton who told him they live in a “climate of fear.”
But it was the economy that dominated much of the discussion.
Cahill said neither of the two frontrunners understands job creation at the "organic level," citing his own experience running a Quincy cafe.
"It's about attacking the jobs problem one job at a time, one business at a time," he said.
When Gibson challenged Patrick moments later on the unemployment rate doubling during his term, Patrick again pinned the blame on the financial crisis.
"I don't think any one of us could have prevented that," he said. "I'm not declaring victory by any means, but we're making progress."
Gibson then pressed Baker on what makes him think he would be any more successful at pushing his agenda through the Legislature than Patrick has -- especially given that state lawmakers have already rejected a number of the reforms Baker is proposing.
"I'm going to lead on some of those issues. I'm going to take the ball and run with it," he said.
Baker said Massachusetts is suffering because it is not competitive with states that have lower taxes and less regulation. He said taxpayers and small businesses -- the "people who pay the bills" -- demand a clear, consistent message from Beacon Hill.
"They need a state government that gets up every day believing that we can compete with other states for jobs and economic opportunity," he said.
The candidates were asked how they would contend with passage of Question 3 next week, which would slash the sales tax rate from 6.25 percent to 3 percent. All four candidates oppose the measure, which would take an estimated $2.5 billion out of the state budget.
Patrick said passage would bring "calamity," and then attacked Baker's economic plan, which calls for reductions in the sales, income, and corporate tax rates to 5 percent. Baker's policies would have "exactly the same impact," Patrick said.
"So this is another example, I think, of saying one thing and offering something else," he said.
Baker hit back by accusing Patrick of plotting to raise taxes again.
"The governor's only proposal, from what I can tell, to deal with the current $2 billion problem, is going to be to raise taxes," Baker said.
"You've never heard that proposal from me," Patrick shot back.
Baker cited as evidence a remark Patrick made recently that he would like to see a progressive state income tax, which Patrick said was taken out of context.
In the final question of the night, the candidates were asked to put aside the nastiness of the campaign and say a kind word about one another.
Cahill said if he ever got sick, he would want Stein, a doctor, to take care of him. Stein said she admires Cahill’s “passion and conviction and courage.”
Patrick called Baker “one of the smartest, most engaged business leaders” in the state and said he would borrow some of his ideas in a second term. Baker, criticized in the past for his reluctance to acknowledge anything positive about Patrick, cited his opponent's compassion and said the governor, who rose from poverty, “is a wonderful story about what a great country America is, start to finish, all the way.”
Noah Bierman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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