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Political analysis

Debate finale offered few twists

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By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / October 26, 2010

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The frontrunners in the race for governor stayed close to their scripts in last night’s final televised debate and, with a week to go until Election Day, appeared willing to fight for a dwindling number of undecided voters on the themes that have been the underpinning of their candidacies in this long scrum of a campaign.

There were new wrinkles, to be sure.

Incumbent Deval Patrick was forced to defend his job-creation record after reports of big losses over the last two months. “No one is trying harder than I am’’ to try to reverse the effects of a global economic downturn, he said, insisting his administration’s investments in education, health care, and job creation are having an effect.

Republican challenger Charles D. Baker seemed thrown off-stride by moderator Charles Gibson’s question about a private memo he wrote in 1998 warning about the impact the Big Dig financing plan would have on other road projects. Baker wrote the memo, first reported by the Associated Press, as he was leaving his job as the state’s budget chief and also publicly downplaying the effect of the project. In response, Baker tried to turn the tables by turning to Patrick and saying: “I certainly hope somebody’s writing a memo to you’’ about the $2 billion structural budget deficit the state is likely to face next year.

But for the most part, Baker and Patrick made no obvious attempts to shake up the dynamic of a race that has been fairly static for months, with Baker trailing Patrick by small margins in every public poll. They stayed close to the themes and talking points over which they have argued during the campaign.

For Patrick, that meant casting himself as the defender of government’s role in creating opportunity and providing a safety net, and citing the choices he has made to maintain funding in certain areas while cutting elsewhere as state revenues collapsed. Over the campaign, Patrick has offered little in the way of new initiatives he plans to introduce if reelected.

For Baker, it meant casting himself as the chief advocate for the private sector and continuing to hammer away at Patrick for increasing taxes and calling for smaller state government and regulatory and tax relief. Baker, a former health insurance executive, rarely expounds on a vision of government beyond increasing its efficiency and cutting taxes. He has offered few details about his priorities and where he will specifically cut programs.

State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, the independent candidate, turned in his crispest performance of the campaign, making direct appeals to disaffected voters who are skeptical of the major parties and pointedly challenging the frontrunners at key moments in the debate. But with a week to go in the campaign, Cahill is running out of time to turn around a candidacy that has been in freefall for months.

Green-Rainbow Party candidate Jill Stein, who has been a minor factor in the race, eloquently defended her third-party candidacy. An advocate of Canadian-style single-payer health care and a critic of charter schools’ effect on public education, she said: “If I were not in it, we would not be having’’ a debate on those issues.

Last night’s debate, sponsored by a media consortium of the Globe and local broadcast television, cable, and public radio stations, was the 16th time the candidates have appeared on the same stage in debates or forums. That is an extraordinary number, and all of the candidates made a contribution to greater civic engagement with their willingness to participate.

Most of the events were sponsored by news organizations, but many were sponsored by groups with business, religious, environmental, workforce development, or social service interests.

Despite or perhaps because of all these debates and forums, one thing is clear from the many public polls in this race: Massachusetts voters are not thrilled about their choices in the race for governor. In the most recent survey conducted for the Globe last week, only Patrick registered favorably with voters — and not by much. Of those polled, 49 percent had a favorable opinion of him, compared to 43 percent who view him unfavorably.

Cahill’s numbers have dropped through the floor: 24 percent favorable to 46 percent unfavorable. And Baker’s negatives have spiked recently: 38 percent view him favorably, compared to 40 percent unfavorably. Stein is 16 percent to 24 percent, favorable to unfavorable.

More troubling for the incumbent, though, is his perilously low job-approval rating among likely voters: 44 percent approve of Patrick’s performance, 49 percent disapprove.

Some of this undoubtedly is a byproduct of the onslaught of negative television advertising, much of it bankrolled by outside groups, that tries to reduce the candidates to caricatures of themselves and their records. By late yesterday, more than $11 million had been spent — about $5.9 million on behalf of Patrick by the Democratic Governors Association, Massachusetts Teachers Association, and Service Employees International Union Local 1199; and $5.2 million on behalf of Baker by the Republican Governors Association.

Cahill, a former Democrat who lacks the support of a party infrastructure, seized on the influx of outside money at one point in the debate. “People are coming from Washington to tell us how to vote,’’ he said.

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