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News Analysis

Feuding challengers miss an opportunity

By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / September 22, 2010

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Before the largest audience of the campaign thus far, the two top challengers in the governor’s race had an opening last night to make up ground on incumbent Deval Patrick. Instead, Timothy P. Cahill and Charles D. Baker spent much of their debate time carving each other up on live television.

With six weeks until the election, the long-simmering tension between Cahill and Baker, both of whom trail Patrick in public polls, erupted on camera, with some of the sharpest exchanges of the campaign. Patrick was hardly unscathed — Baker and Cahill criticized him frequently on well-worn themes. But, unlike previous debates in which he was the principal focus of attacks from all sides, Patrick probably benefited from the spectacle of his rivals attacking each other, sometimes bitterly.

Cahill, the state treasurer who is running as an independent, twice accused Baker, a Republican, of intentionally lying in a television advertisement that lumps Cahill in with Patrick as the cause of tax increases and state budget problems. Cahill, whose office is independent of the governor, said he never voted for higher taxes or signed any tax increases into law.

Baker, without missing a beat, fired back, saying Cahill, then a Democrat, endorsed Patrick four years ago in the Democratic primary and accused him of “saying virtually nothing’’ when Patrick proposed tax increases totaling $1 billion a year.

Later, after Baker attacked Cahill for an increase in the unfunded liability of the state’s pension fund, which the treasurer’s office oversees, Cahill had a bristling retort to the former chief executive of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. After pointing out that public employees contribute to their own pensions, he said, “Not all of us are going to retire as millionaires, as you will.’’

Last night’s debate was aired on three broadcast television stations, a cable station, and two public radio stations, providing by far the largest audience of the campaign to date. It presented the best opportunity for the candidates to shake up the dynamic of the race, which has remained fairly static for several months, according to public polls that have suggested that Patrick has a modest lead over Baker, Cahill is in a distant third, and Jill Stein, the Green-Rainbow Party candidate, is in the single digits.

There will be at least three more debates, two of them televised, before voters choose the next governor in November. But for Baker and Cahill, last night may have been a missed opportunity. There has been bad blood between them for some time, as Baker has repeatedly conflated Cahill’s record with Patrick’s. The feud was fueled by almost $2 million in negative ads, most of them aimed at Cahill, aired by the Republican Governors Association earlier this year, independent of the Baker campaign. Cahill’s standing in the polls plummeted almost immediately.

Patrick was also a frequent target last night but not with the intensity or frequency he has been in previous debates. Moreover, the criticism of him failed to break any new ground, focusing mostly on tax increases and stopgap measures used to balance precarious state budgets that have been in a state of almost constant crisis during the recession.

The incumbent repeatedly cast himself as a believer in the importance of state government’s role in helping people. At many junctures, he stressed his “values’’ and “choices,’’ including severe spending cuts the state has made in many areas, noting at one point, “You’d better believe I’m struggling with those decisions about what to cut.’’

Stein was on the sidelines for much of the debate, though she may have scored points with some voters as the only candidate who opposes the onset of casino gambling in the state.

In the closing weeks of the campaign, each of the major candidates has yet to overcome a basic obstacle unique to each of their campaigns.

Baker is trying to convince voters that he can replicate his turnaround of Harvard Pilgrim in state government. As a Republican, he would be facing a hostile and huge Democratic majority in a state Legislature that has refused to take seriously most of the proposals that Baker has offered to streamline state government.

Cahill’s task is even more daunting. As an independent who abandoned the Democratic Party, he is in a political no-man’s land. On one flank, he is trying to outdo Baker on fiscal austerity issues that appeal to conservatives. On the other, he is trying to hold onto elements of his natural base of urban Democrats.

Patrick, whose poll numbers still reflect a serious vulnerability, also faces high hurdles down the stretch. He can tell voters that Massachusetts is doing better than other states in education, health care, and job creation, but that’s selling an abstraction to those voters who are struggling every day to survive the economic downturn.

Brian C. Mooney can be reached at bmooney@globe.com

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