In the first Massachusetts gubernatorial debate, this past June on WRKO radio, Republican Charlie Baker fared poorly, sounding defensive and petulant during testy exchanges with Governor Deval Patrick and Treasurer Tim Cahill. It's not terribly surprising — few people are naturals at the art of being a candidate, and for all his experience in and around politics, this is Baker's first real stab at it. (He has previously run only for selectman in his hometown of Swampscott.)
Still, many have wondered whether Baker has the temperament, and the discipline, to improve himself as a candidate — as his friends Bill Weld and Mitt Romney both did on their way to the corner office.
Two months later, Baker's performance in the campaign's second debate, hosted Monday afternoon in Boston by the non-partisan think tank MassINC, suggested that the answer may be yes. He was smoother, better focused on his message, and looser — even showing an impromptu, playful side. (After Green-Rainbow candidate Jill Stein drew laughs by confessing agreement with Baker on an issue, Baker outlined a heart in the air with his fingers.)
The forum may have had much to do with the improvement. The single-issue debate, on the Cape Wind project, made message discipline easy. And, because all three challengers agree on the issue — they object to the offshore wind farm, which Patrick has championed — the discussion was a three-on-one. Cahill, who frequently went after Baker in the radio debate, left him alone this time. And Patrick was also far less aggressive toward Baker than he had been in the WRKO studio, as he seems determined to maintain the image of a clean, positive campaign (regardless of what his surrogates are doing). He even apologized for the one time he got snippy toward Baker.
But, the debate also demonstrated the enormous advantage that Patrick and his team still maintain in political experience and skill.
The forum was a perfect setup for Patrick (whose energy and environmental affairs secretary happens to be former MassINC president Ian Bowles). It cast the governor alone on the side of perhaps the most popular thing in Massachusetts outside of Fenway Park — even an opposition survey this spring found a staggering 85 percent support for wind-turbine development, with just four percent opposed. Seven out of 10 state residents said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports wind-power projects.
It's possible that those minds would be changed by the arguments made by Baker, Cahill, and Stein on Monday afternoon — but voters will only learn of the non-broadcast event through news reports, most of which, predictably, barely touched on those issue details. Perhaps a couple hundred people (mostly media and partisans, it appeared) actually saw Baker's solid performance; for the bulk of the commonwealth, Patrick assured himself a victory just by showing up.
No nose for the jugular
There is a way for a skilled politician to turn situations like this to his advantage. If Baker had seized an opening to attack Patrick, harshly, on a broader point, that would have been the exchange shown on local newscasts, written up in the newspapers, and with luck circulated on the Web.