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Patrick, Baker, Cahill trade punches in radio debate

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By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / September 15, 2010

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The race for governor, which seemed dominated in recent weeks by the top two candidates, looked much more like a three-way free-for-all last night during a radio debate that featured feisty exchanges among Democratic Governor Deval Patrick, Republican Charles D. Baker, and Independent Timothy P. Cahill.

Both challengers went after Patrick, leaving the incumbent on the defensive after Cahill charged that he failed to make tough budget choices and Baker said his government had failed to live within its means.

“Can we just straighten out the record here?’’ Patrick said, voice raised. “We’re going to have to concentrate on reality.’’

The debate capped an unexpectedly busy, and at times odd, day on the campaign trail in which Baker got a taste of Democratic attack ads that are expected to last until Election Day.

It was a rare election primary when none of the candidates for governor faced a challenge within their own party. But instead of slipping into the shadows while voters cemented the rest of the November ballot, the candidates met for a prime time radio debate, and sparred over the new round of controversial advertising. And, in the day’s most curious twist, Cahill turned a classic election day photo opportunity into a suspenseful question over whether he would actually cast a primary ballot.

The debate, moderated by WBZ host Dan Rea in front of a live audience in Braintree, was the fourth of what is becoming an increasingly busy debate schedule.

There were a few poignant moments: Baker appeared to tear up when recalling his grandfather and Cahill recalled, in his own childhood, seeing his father get laid off and “embarrassed’’ as he accepted a lower paying job to keep the family together.

But the fundamental dispute remained more global — the state’s economy and what the candidates believe voters want.

Baker told Patrick that people “don’t believe Beacon Hill, under your leadership and Timothy Cahill’s leadership, lives by the same values they live by,’’ values that force belt-tightening during tough times.

Patrick touted his own record of changing government, asserting that “what it requires up on Beacon Hill is standing up to people in power, and that is something that we have done and frankly that, Charlie, you’ve never done.’’

Cahill offered his own version: “We don’t have to disagree on values. We just have to figure out how to pay for things . . . without taxing people to the moon.’’

In a debate that forced many yes or no answers, Cahill and Baker were often in agreement on the issues — against Cape Wind, for the death penalty, against drivers licenses for illegal immigrants, in favor of repealing the sales tax on liquor — leaving Patrick to take the other side.

On tax issues, where the disagreement is strongest, Patrick insisted that voters were sending a more complex message: They want to pay less, but they also want crucial state services such as education and health care access. Cahill and Baker both said voters’ main concern is having enough money to pay their bills.

Patrick has maintained a slight lead over Baker in most recent polls, with Cahill struggling for viability. Jill Stein, a Green-Rainbow Party candidate who has registered low polling numbers, was not invited to participate.

The anti-Baker television ad launched yesterday was paid for by a newly formed Democratic group called Bay State Future, which is affiliated with the Democratic Governors Association, according to Bay State’s chairwoman, Barbara Weniger. The group registered with the Internal Revenue Service last week as a so-called 527 organization, named for a section of the tax code that allows outside groups to spend money on elections without contribution limits. The ad focuses on Baker’s role in the Big Dig, claiming that he was the “chief architect of the Big Dig financing scheme that cost taxpayers $15 billion’’ — an assertion not fully supported by the record.

The Big Dig did in fact cost $15 billion and Baker did engineer a $3 billion financing plan that has limited the state’s ability to pay for road and bridge projects since then. But Baker, who was the state’s chief budget officer in the 1990s, was not responsible for the financing or spending of the full $15 billion.

“I didn’t write the script for the ad,’’ said Weniger, an Arlington bakery owner who has donated $1,000 to Patrick since 2008. “But the intent of the ad is to show people what his record was, that he was involved in this.’’

Weniger, who has been active in Democratic politics, referred questions about the group’s finances to the Democratic Governors Association, whose spokeswoman did not return a call and an e-mail yesterday.

The ad follows a series of hard-hitting spots that the Republican Governors Association launched in the spring and summer on behalf of Baker, against Patrick and Cahill, the state treasurer.

Patrick, in the past, harshly criticized the Republican Governors Association ads, cautioning that they “will be poisonous’’ to the campaign. He previously called on Baker to denounce them and asked that they be stopped.

“Governor Patrick believes that ads sponsored by outside groups should not be a part of this campaign. He believed that when the Republican Governors Association spent millions on ads earlier this year, and he believes it now,’’ Patrick’s campaign manager, Sydney Asbury, said in statement.

As the ad war drew a slew of competing campaign e-mails yesterday, Cahill was generating a surprising amount of attention as he deliberated whether or not to vote in the primary.

Cahill first drew notice, and some criticism from Republicans, for his voting plans when he revealed weeks ago that he would cast a ballot in the Democratic primary. Yesterday, Cahill showed up at his precinct in Quincy, then retreated without casting a ballot, saying in a statement that he was worried about “rumored challenges to my candidacy based on my potential vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary.’’

Hours later, Cahill issued another statement saying he had changed his mind after a reassuring letter form Secretary of State William F. Galvin that his independent candidacy would not be in jeopardy if he voted.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.

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