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News Analysis

In first TV debate, candidates stick to the script

By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / October 27, 2009

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For most voters, the race to succeed Edward M. Kennedy in the Senate has been waged in the fog of upbeat television advertisements and the self-promotion of press releases in the two months since his death. Last night, in their first televised debate, distinctive images of four Democrats vying in the Dec. 8 special primary came into sharper focus.

On policy issues, all four are unalloyed liberal Democrats, differing barely or not at all on such issues as more troops in Afghanistan (all basically are opposed), a public option in an overhaul of the nation’s health care system (to varying degrees, all are in favor), and a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s more than 10 million undocumented immigrants (again, all support it).

But during an hourlong debate sponsored by the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Senate, each had a particular emphasis or selling point for the many viewers who were seeing them together for the first time.

Social entrepreneur Alan Khazei of Brookline, the least well known of the quartet, probably made the most of the opportunity. The cofounder of City Year - the prototype for AmeriCorps, the national public service program - offered some detailed economic proposals and cast himself as an agent of change who will fight to rein in the moneyed special interests in Washington, or as he put it, “get the hogs out of the creek.’’

Investor and Celtics part-owner Stephen Pagliuca of Weston, whose omnipresent television ads have raised his once nonexistent profile with voters, is staking out turf as the candidate who says he can help create jobs. Citing his 25 years of business expertise, Pagliuca said he has been touched by voters who approached him in tears because they have lost their jobs. “I can really do something about this,’’ he said, “and put those skills to work bringing jobs back to Massachusetts.’’

Six-term US Representative Michael Capuano of Somerville portrayed himself as the blue-collar guy who is unafraid to make tough votes (against the Iraq war and the Patriot Act) and is an unabashed horse-trader whose experience in Washington will help him deliver federal research and other funds to the state.

In a moment of apparent hyperbole, Capuano, a self-described “working-class guy,’’ said he decided to run for the Kennedy seat because “if somebody like me doesn’t step up and try, then nobody like me will ever be able to succeed in this country.’’

Martha Coakley, the first-term attorney general from Medford, was cool and even-tempered. She often used her answers on federal issues to highlight initiatives in her state office, such as a business and technology development division, protecting civil rights, and a fraud task force to investigate the use of federal funds. She took few risks during the debate, and her answers reflected a lawyerly equanimity.

The legacy of Kennedy, who served 47 years until his death in late August, hung over the proceedings. Not only was the debate sponsored by the institute he founded, it was held at the library and museum honoring his brother, John F. Kennedy, at Dorchester’s Columbia Point.

If not exactly reaching for the mantle of Kennedy, all four Democrats at least referred almost reverentially to it. Pagliuca said he worked with Kennedy on different issues over the past 10 years. Khazei said his innovations in public service were inspired by John F. Kennedy and he worked with Edward M. Kennedy to help pass laws to create and expand those programs. Coakley said she would try to assemble a staff of the quality of Kennedys, which has been legendary for their efficiency on Capitol Hill. Capuano cited his agreement with Kennedy on several issues, and both he and Pagliuca said they would follow Kennedy’s path in seeking comprehensive immigration reform.

This race may prove that ethnic identity still matters in Massachusetts politics. Pagliuca, for instance, said he came from “an immigrant family, a legal immigrant family’’ and on at least four occasions said he agreed with what Capuano had just said on different subjects. Capuano noted he is “half Irish, half Italian’’ during the immigration question and answer period. Khazei twice noted that his father came to the United States from Iran (and at least three times noted that his father was a physician) and said the family of his mother came from Italy. Only Coakley, of Irish descent, failed to highlight her ethnic roots.

With differences on most issues a matter of nuance, such details about the quartet of candidates could be important to some voters. There are only six weeks until the primary, and voters are now taking what is a crash course in these candidates, none of whom entered this race as a household name.