It’s been a long summer of stump speeches and candidate forums, but for state Representative Martin J. Walsh and City Councilor John R. Connolly the end is in sight.
The two men who hope to be Boston’s next mayor face off tonight for their third and final major televised debate, hosted at the studios of WHDH-TV and broadcast by a number of other TV and radio stations.
Tonight’s debate offers one of the most significant opportunities that either candidate has had to appeal directly to voters. In addition to being broadcast widely, the debate comes on an evening when there is no Red Sox game.
1. If each of them accuses the other of negative campaigning, who comes across more sympathetically? Or do they both end up looking bad?
One of the more memorable exchanges between the two came early in the second debate. Union groups backing Walsh had sent out a series of mailers slamming Connolly as a “son of privilege” and mischaracterizing the now-closed school where he spent two years teaching in New York City.
Walsh had asked the unions to stop sending them, but at the time it seemed they were not listening — and Connolly was able to brand himself as the candidate devoted to a positive race.
Since that debate, however, Boston voters have reported getting polling calls pushing negative messages against Walsh. Connolly has refused to comment on whether his campaign is behind those calls.
At the end of the day, both campaigns (or, in many cases, their supporters and outside groups working on their behalf) have engaged in behavior that would be fairly deemed “negative campaigning.”
Despite that, it will be interesting to see if either candidate attempts to continue to take the “I’m running a positive campaign” high ground. If so, given the harsh tone the race has taken in recent weeks, will anyone believe them?
2. What is Walsh’s line of attack on Connolly? (Hint: probably Republican donors)
While conventional wisdom says that candidates who are behind go on the attack, the mayoral race is considered a tossup. That makes it a safe bet that both candidates will have a few carefully crafted slams on their opponent that they will unleash.
Walsh generally has been the candidate to exhibit more hesitation with regard to targeting his opponent, but has been a little more harsh toward Connolly in recent campaign speeches than previously.
In the second debate, Walsh questioned Connolly’s tenure as a corporate lawyer, a favorite line of attack on the city councilor among Walsh supporters. For the first time in the campaign, Walsh called for Connolly to release a list of his legal clients and seemed to imply that there was something questionable in his opponent’s legal career.
Since that debate, those calls have died down. Citing attorney-client privilege, Connolly has declined to release the list. A Globe article profiling his time as an attorney did not come up with anything particularly controversial.
Walsh might still slip in a few corporate lawyer jabs, but it seems as if the attacks on Connolly’s legal career may have run their course. So what will he highlight instead?
The Walsh campaign could seize on the Globe story last week that highlighted that Connolly has received significant support from Republican donors. They wasted almost no time blasting out the story to their e-mail list, declaring Connolly “THE GOP’S MAYORAL CANDIDATE OF CHOICE”—even though Walsh was, at the very moment that the e-mail went out, bragging on stage at a rally at Old South Church about how he has earned the support of both progressives and conservatives.
3. Can Connolly replicate the “union” exchange from second debate?
In the second debate, Connolly effectively harped on what remains one of the central questions around Walsh’s candidacy: Will the state representative, who is currently a union president and has a long relationship with area unions, be able to effectively stand up to his friends in the unions, if elected.
“I’ve been able to sit down at the table . . . and tell them the hard truths that some times they don’t want to hear,” Walsh said during the second debate. “I’ve been able to do it on many occasions.”
But Connolly did not let up:
“I don’t understand how they are going to listen to you,” Connolly replied. “It seems like they can’t wait to get you at the table.”
Political observers widely agree that Walsh still has not found the secret sauce to convincingly explain to voters why they should not be concerned about his close union ties. His occasional struggle at smoothly articulating why those ties are not a negative, combined with the hundreds of thousands of dollars that out-of-state labor unions have poured into his campaign coffers in recent weeks, could leave him open for another wave of attack by Connolly.
4. Does Connolly send a subliminal message to supporters? What are both candidates’ closing arguments?
From the first days of this race, Connolly has led in virtually every single poll. So why, then, would he allow the Globe to report earlier this week that his own internal polls show the race is now a “dead heat”?
To rally the base.
Political frontrunners often have strict superstitions about declaring victory too early. The thought is, if your supporters believe you’ve locked up the race, then they won’t show up to vote.
While Connolly supporters may have long considered their candidate the frontrunner, it’s hard to interpret the campaign’s choice to allow the leak of an internal poll showing the race a tossup as anything other than a message to those supporters: “This thing is really close, we need you to keep writing checks and show up at the ballot box!”
Many Connolly supporters will likely be watching tonight, so the candidate may slip a deliberately crafted line or two into his debate response that will serve as a rallying call. Keep an earnest ear for any mention of this being a “tossup” or “close race.”
More broadly, both candidates will be appearing in what is the last major long-form television opportunity of the campaign. What is the final message they will leave with voters who step into the voting booth a week from today?