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Furious exchanges mark Senate debate

Brown criticizes Democrat on taxes, terrorism; Coakley calls Republican’s health stance reckless

The candidates for US Senate, Martha Coakley, Joseph L. Kennedy, and Scott Brown, spoke with moderator Jim Madigan, director of public affairs at WGBY in Springfield. The candidates for US Senate, Martha Coakley, Joseph L. Kennedy, and Scott Brown, spoke with moderator Jim Madigan, director of public affairs at WGBY in Springfield. (Nancy Palmieri/Associated Press)
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / January 9, 2010

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SPRINGFIELD - With just 10 days to go before the election, Republican Scott P. Brown unleashed some of his most pointed attacks of the abbreviated campaign for US Senate, accusing Democrat Martha Coakley yesterday of proposing more than $2 trillion in new taxes, of endangering the public by arguing that terrorism suspects should have civilian trials, and of saddling business with costly new environmental rules.

But, in an unusual turn of events, Brown also leapt to Coakley’s defense at one point, demanding that an outside group pull an ad attacking her.

Coakley was just as aggressive as Brown, blasting him for opposing regulations intended to prevent another financial meltdown and accusing him of proposing a reckless health care plan that would let insurers eliminate critical care for women and the elderly.

The debate was the second to last before the Jan. 19 special election, and both candidates seemed energized and eager to spar amid reports suggesting that the race may be tightening. Coakley and Brown, as well as an independent candidate, Joseph L. Kennedy, sat around a small circular table for the hourlong debate at Springfield’s public television station, WGBY. The debate was also broadcast last night on WGBH-FM in Boston.

There were no time limits on the candidates’ answers, a format that allowed for some of the sharpest exchanges to date.

Brown repeatedly charged that Coakley did not understand the terrorism issue as well as he does and argued that his nearly 30 years in the Army National Guard has prepared him to deal with the issue.

Pointing to the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound jetliner on Christmas Day, he said members of Al Qaeda “are looking to kill our kids and kill us.’’

“We’re at war,’’ he said. “We’re at war in our airports. We’re at war in our shopping centers. We’re at war all over the world. Al Qaeda is coming here to try to kill our American citizens.’’

He said terrorism suspects should be tried in military tribunals, and he criticized Coakley for backing Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to bring Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to New York for trial.

“To have us pay for attorneys for people who are trying to kill us is wrong,’’ Brown said. “To give them constitutional rights is wrong.’’

Coakley contended that civilian trials were appropriate, and she pointed to the successful prosecution in federal court in Boston of attempted shoe bomber Richard Reid.

“We have a dismal failure with the military tribunal system,’’ Coakley said. “For the $100 million every year that it takes to keep it open, we have exactly three convictions over a period of time. . . . It was incredibly ineffective.’’

Citing her years as Middlesex district attorney and attorney general, she said: “I have spent a lot of time keeping people safe.’’

For his part, Kennedy, a Libertarian who is running as an independent, called for the withdrawal of all US troops overseas, saying they are spawning terrorism by “creating generation after generation of people who hate us.’’

On health care, Coakley, the state’s attorney general, went on the attack, arguing that Brown’s plan to limit mandates on health insurers would lead to elimination of coverage for mammograms, cervical cancer screenings and hospice care for seniors.

“Your proposal . . . is to give insurance companies a break and to cut services for people who need it,’’ Coakley said. “That’s counterproductive.’’

Brown, a state senator and father of two daughters, bristled at the charge. “It’s preposterous to think I would want to cut mammograms and screenings for cervical cancer,’’ he said. “I live in a house full of women.’’

Both candidates tried to relate to viewers in economically hard-hit Springfield. Coakley talked about growing up in Western Massachusetts, the daughter of a Navy veteran who served in World War II and the Korean War, and recalled that she walked to school.

“I brought those values and those qualities with me’’ to elected office, she said.

Brown talked about growing up with a “mom who was on welfare’’ and “getting blocks of cheese off a truck.’’

Brown said after that debate that he was energized by the possibility that the race may be tightening.

“I’m the underdog,’’ he said. “I’m supposed to lose, folks. The fact that I’m here and we’re close, closer than some of you may think, is exciting.’’

On taxes, Brown repeatedly said Coakley supports $2.1 trillion in additional taxation, a figure he justifies by arguing that her positions on how to finance health care, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and environmental policy would cost taxpayers that sum.

“He’s wrong, and he pulls numbers out of nowhere that he can’t support,’’ Coakley said, adding that she supports tax cuts for the middle class.

She also questioned Brown’s support for Bush-era tax cuts, which are set to expire.

Coakley asked him if he understood that the tax cuts primarily benefit the wealthiest 2 percent of taxpayers.

He did not directly answer her, however.

“If you’re not going to give a yes or no, then I don’t want an answer. Thanks!’’ Coakley said.

Both candidates also addressed a television ad by a conservative group, the American Future Fund, that compares Brown’s support for “across-the-board tax cuts’’ with Coakley’s statement in a previous debate that “we need to get taxes up.’’ Coakley said she was referring to increasing tax revenues by creating jobs, not new taxes.

“I misspoke,’’ Coakley said. In a press release yesterday, Coakley’s campaign labeled the American Future Fund “an extremist right-wing group’’ and said the ad showed “Scott Brown is beholden to the extreme right wing of the Republican Party.’’

Her campaign said it had raised more than $100,000 in online donations in the last 24 hours and said the fund-raising was “just the latest sign that the people of Massachusetts will not allow the extreme right-wing forces to hijack this race.’’

Brown rejected Coakley’s attempts to link him to national Republicans. “I’m not Bush-Cheney; you’re not running against them,’’ he said. “I’m Scott Brown from Wrentham, and you’re running against me. So the whole Bush-Cheney referral all the time is old. That joke’s old.’’

After the debate, Brown said he had no involvement in the ad but said it should not run.

“I would encourage anybody who’s trying to influence this election to stop and let us do our jobs and let the people learn about us and not get sidetracked on these red herring issues,’’ Brown said.

Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.