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NEWS ANALYSIS

As Patrick plays it safe, Healey drives her message home

SPRINGFIELD -- The debate was seconds old last night when Kerry Healey turned to her rivals and hurled her first question at them: Why did they oppose an immediate income tax cut when voters approved it six years ago?

It was the perfect opener to make her rivals look mealy-mouthed and defensive, and Healey clinched her advantage when her turn came to respond.

``Not surprisingly, none of you managed to answer the question," she said. ``The question is simply put: Why would anyone who is voting want to vote for a candidate who does not respect the will of the voters? Doesn't make any sense."

Flushed with effort, gesticulating for emphasis, Healey dove for opportunities to drive her message home last night. With polls indicating that she trails far behind the charismatic Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Deval L. Patrick, she could not afford to waste a single second.

For the most part, she didn't. When Patrick made his usual pitch for a property tax cut instead of an income tax cut, she was ready: The state could afford both, she said, if it also adopted her proposals to help communities control pension and healthcare costs.

Asked about her ability to work with the Legislature, she threw down two examples of legislation she helped pass. Then, warning of the dangers of one-party rule, she said she helped defeat a bill to give in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, ``a measure that you support, Mr. Patrick," she concluded with a neat pivot to face him.

If the frontrunner's job in a debate is to make no mistakes, Patrick succeeded last night.

Patrick was well-spoken, as usual. Perhaps in response to criticism that he is too vague, he spent almost no time talking about big ideas, instead focusing on concrete proposals like property tax circuit breakers and economic development strategies.

But when opportunities arose to attack Healey's record, Patrick mostly avoided the jugular. When the candidates were asked about financially ailing Springfield's state-controlled government, it was up to Grace Ross, the Green-Rainbow Party candidate, to point out that Healey's praise for the unelected control board seemed at odds with her stance that the state should cut the income tax because the voters called for it.

Even some of Patrick's supporters have privately expressed worry about his seeming mellowness, which appears more noticeable as the campaign wears on.

It was only in the last 90 seconds that he seemed to hone in on Healey's vulnerabilities: The lieutenant governor and her administration ``talk about being tough on crime," he said, but pursued policies that laid off 500 to 700 officers. ``They talk about fiscal responsibility," he said, but let the Big Dig go unsupervised and Massport benefits go unmonitored. ``They talk about illegal immigration," he said, but then hire construction companies that employ illegal immigrants.

It was a strong thematic pitch, but it came late in the hour.

Afterward, Patrick said he felt he basically got his points across, but was somewhat frustrated that the debate's format did not allow rebuttals. ``But, listen," he added, ``I'm not in this because I feel like I need to tear anybody else down in order to build myself up. That's just not who I am."

As she left the stage, Healey said she felt great, though she said she would have liked to drill down more on Patrick's positions on taxes and MCAS testing .

``But we'll tease that out over the course of the next five weeks," she said with a purposeful smile.

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.

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