Candidates for Ted Kennedy's seat spar in debate

Nancy Reardon

Troop strength in Afghanistan, job growth and health care reform dominated a feisty debate Tuesday in which the four Democrats running for U.S. Senate fought to stand apart from each other.

After moderator Ed Harding, an anchor for WCVB-TV Channel 5, pointed out early on that the candidates appeared to be agreeing with one another, the tone of the hour-long match turned quickly from conciliatory to hot-tempered as candidates talked over each other.

The debate was co-sponsored by WCVB-TV Channel 5 and GateHouse Media New England and WickedLocal.com. In addition to moderator Harding, the panelists were WCVB political reporter Janet Wu and Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, a Gatehouse newspaper in Framingham.

On foreign policy, all four Democrats – Attorney General Martha Coakley, U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano, City Year co-founder Alan Khazei and Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca – said they opposed President’s Obama’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan and believed sending U.S. troops into Pakistan would be a mistake.

All candidates said they would vote against extending components of the Patriot Act, except for Coakley, who said she believed it could be reworked to both protect people from terrorism and not violate their civil liberties.

The hot-button issue of health care reform, however, brought out more differences.

Pagliuca emphasized a position he has made throughout the campaign – that he believes he’s the only guaranteed ‘yes’ vote for health care reform. He said he would vote for a final bill even if it included controversial language restricting a women’s access to abortion services,

“I don’t have any stipulations,” Pagliuca said.

Coakley said she would not vote for a bill that included that language because it would “compromise women’s rights.”

Capuano – who voted for the House version that included such an amendment – said his decision would depend on what the final bill says.

“I won’t vote for any bill that just happens to have the title ‘health care bill,’” he said.

Taking aim at Pagliuca’s ‘yes vote’ stance, Capuano asked him, “Have you ever known a poor woman who was forced to choose for an abortion without health care coverage?”

Pagliuca – who answered he had – accused Capuano of a personal attack.

On job creation, the four candidates presented many overlapping ideas but also displayed differences in their approach.

Khazei – who unveiled a jobs-creation program earlier in the day in Quincy – said he favored establishing a tax credit for creating jobs and a $50,000 tax write-off against income for small businesses.

Coakley also favored tax credits, and both she and Pagliuca said they would work to free up money so small businesses could secure loans again and expand.

Pagliuca favors investments in public-private partnerships to grow the state’s life sciences and biotechnology industry and putting more money into job training.

Capuano – who criticized the other three for “reinventing the wheel” – said he would create a quick, massive federal program to allow private companies to hire a lot of people for projects such as highway, housing and school construction.