Rick Holmes: A view from the Senate debate set
In the well-worn political cliche, a campaign is a marathon, not a sprint. But the race for the Democratic nomination to succeed the late Sen. Ted Kennedy has been a sprint from the beginning. With a week to go before the special primary election, now's the time for runners to make their moves.
Tuesday night's debate was a lively, fast-paced affair, and none of the four candidates pulled up lame in the home stretch. But from my seat on the set, where I was one of two panelists posing questions, the race appeared unchanged at the end of the hour: Four runners bunched up over on the far left side of the track, with Martha Coakley in the lead and the three men Michael Capuano, Steve Pagliuca and Alan Khazei bumping each other in a bid to be the runner-up.
The dynamic of this race has been set from the beginning by circumstance. It's a short race culminating in a special primary the second Tuesday in December. That means a very small turnout dominated by the most committed Democrats. Conventional wisdom - which is all the candidates hear from their seasoned advisers - says you can't be too far left for the sliver of the electorate likely to vote.
Hence the spectacle of four Massachusetts Democrats distancing themselves from a Democratic president just an hour before Barack Obama asked the nation's support for his Afghanistan initiative. Each of the four said they'd give the president a respectful hearing - but all said they opposed the actions he was about to announce.
You might think that in a crowded field, one candidate would find some advantage by running to the right of the pack. Pagliuca, the millionaire underdog from Weston, would be the logical candidate to reach out to the center. But he's looking at the small turnout, and figuring a campaign based on a ton of TV commercials won't get a lot of voters out of their couches.
Khazei, the civic entrepreneur behind City Year and other service organizations, is banking on a grass-roots campaign to surprise the experts. But grass-roots networks take time to build and Khazei is short on time, money, name recognition and charisma.
Insiders were predicting Tuesday night's debate, followed by another televised debate Wednesday, would be when Capuano, who always seems to be looking for a fight, turned his fire on the front-runner. But he passed on every opportunity. Moderator Ed Harding had to ask him three times to identify Coakley as the one candidate with a slightly more sympathetic view of the Patriot Act than the others, an issue he clearly wanted to exploit. One of my questions challenged him to answer Coakley's charge the day before that he was more of a follower than a leader. Capuano let that pitch go by. He seemed eager to mix it up with Pagliuca, which seems more personal than strategic. Pagliuca isn't Capuano's problem; Coakley is.
The insiders say Coakley's lead is narrowing, which is typical in the late stages of a campaign. She just announced an aggressive schedule of five appearances a day for the last five days of the campaign, which may be a sign she hears footsteps.
But in last night's debate Coakley was as unflappable as ever. Her answers were calm, her demeanor moderate. She raised her voice just once, responding to Pagliuca's repeated jabs over her willingness to vote against a health reform bill that adds significant new restrictions to abortion rights.
"Steve, it's personal to me," Coakley said, underlining the other dynamic that has marked this race from the beginning. As the one woman in the race, she stands apart, more often above the fray than in the middle of it. None of the three men want to attack her directly and risk turning off female voters. So they hold back, hoping one of the other guys will inflict some damage, or that she'll trip up on her own.
So far, though, Coakley has proven to be sure-footed. Even in high heels, she's still leading this footrace.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.townonline.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at email@example.com.