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O達rien wins debate, but will voters agree?

The final debate in the gubernatorial race between Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Shannon O達rien was much like the first debate in 2000 between Vice-President Al Gore and Texas governor George W. Bush: in both cases, the knowledgeable Democrat beat the stuffing out of the less-well-informed Republican. Whether last night痴 routing will draw undecided voters to the Democrat any more effectively is an unsettled question; all I know is that when I called outside the 617 area code for a reality check on how O達rien had played in 781 and beyond, I got this response: "Where is she coming off with that smirk?" My source, nonetheless, is planning to vote for O達rien.

A cynic would say her performance reeked of newly installed communications specialist Bob Shrum, who helped prep O達rien for the debate; after all, didn稚 Shrum do the same thing for Gore in 2000? That assessment, however, would be unfair. The smirking, interrupting, tough-as-nails O達rien was close to if not completely the real O達rien, a politician who came of age when symbolic wakes for politicians who had crossed Senate president William Bulger were a regular occurrence. (Senators who crossed him were known as "dead.") O達rien is a street fighter, a battler, a politician who can stick in the knife with a smile. That痴 what she did when she told Romney, "You don稚 tell the truth about what you believe."

Romney痴 pathetic responses, describing O達rien as acting in an "unbecoming" manner, might play well out in the suburbs beyond Route 128. They shouldn稚. Instead of engaging the issues she raised, he tried to spin O達rien痴 aggressive debating style against her. When she scored telling blows, questioning his letter to a Utah newspaper asking not "to be labeled pro-choice" and forcing him to admit, "I don稚 know about the Mass Citizens for Life endorsement," he challenged her demeanor. When he trumpeted his record on abortion, she responded, "You don稚 have a record ... other than waffling." On the state-budget deficit, O達rien seemed to offer more candor than Romney, who vowed not to raise taxes next year even as he failed to address whether a portion of his program included an increase in the excise tax that violated Proposition 2ス. O達rien also pinned Romney as someone whose numbers don稚 add up by questioning his assertion that the state could save $1.7 billion by increasing medical subsidies from the federal government. (She made sure to point out that Senators John Kerry and Ted Kennedy both Capitol Hill heavyweights said it could not be done.) Romney defended himself by essentially denying he壇 ever made such an assertion. For the first time in a major forum, O達rien likened Romney to former governor William Weld, a Republican elected on a platform of cleaning up Beacon Hill who instead "raised patronage" to new heights.

Romney痴 best moment came when he countered O達rien痴 attack on his record of reaping profits as an investor by cutting jobs. He responded with a question to O達rien about companies in which the state pension fund invests. Some of them, of course, engage in tactics similar to and possibly even invest with his old company, Bain Capital.

Following the debate, the O達rien team was quick to supply reporters with a Romney-campaign press release supporting O達rien痴 claim that Romney had said the state could save money by increasing medical subsidies from the federal government. "If Massachusetts received 77 percent federal reimbursement, the state痴 federal share would increase by over $1.7 billion annually," the Romney release read. Shown the statement, Romney spokesperson Eric Fehrnstrom replied that Romney痴 contention was merely hypothetical. Yet, the O達rien team came back again with a photocopy of one of the pages from a PowerPoint presentation Romney made on the same topic. This time, his notion about increased federal subsidies contained no "if." But viewers didn稚 get to see the documentation that bore out O達rien痴 attack. That痴 too bad. When I tried to get Romney to comment on the document I had staked out my usual position, to his side, from which I have asked him questions at two prior debates he made a plea for more space from the swarm of reporters and television cameras surrounding him. Then he climbed up on a stage and out of my range.

Afterward, moderator Tim Russert said he thought it was a good exchange. "We have a very clear view of the candidates," he said. "I now have a very clear understanding of their positions on the death penalty, on abortion, on the state痴 budget problems."

On the substance, O達rien was the clear winner. On style, who knows? The election if it痴 as close as the polls now indicate will hinge on the Democratic advantage in GOTV, or getting out the vote. The O達rien team imported a huge array of supporters mostly union members to hold signs before Tuesday night痴 debate. They are her army. Romney will try to counter with a newfangled-computer GOTV and voter-ID set-up. Who knows if that will work? What we do know is that it痴 only going to get uglier from here on out.

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Issue Date: October 30, 2002
"Today's Jolt" archives: 2002  2001

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