Two initial reactions to watching last night's first Democratic candidate debate for the Senate in Massachusetts:
First, I was about to say that it's hard to overstate the tough task they face, of trying to fill the shoes of the late Ted Kennedy. And that is true, not only of the four Democrats but of the likely Republican candidate, state Sen. Scott Brown.
But then I thought of what Kennedy was like when he himself was making his maiden Senate run, in 1962. He was just 30, barely old enough to run, with hardly an impressive resume, other than being the brother of the president of the United States. There was that famous line uttered by his debate opponent, Democratic state Attorney General Ed McCormack, who said, "Teddy, if your name was Edward Moore instead of Edward Moore Kennedy, your candidacy would be a joke."
It took years in the Senate, and national tragedy, to elevate Kennedy to the heights he reached before his death in August. So if I didn't see another Ted Kennedy in last night's debate, that's forgivable.
And second, I've never been a fan of deciding "winners" and "losers" in watching these debates. But I did come away with some impressions, which I will now share with you:
To start off, there were -- as to be expected -- no real policy differences among them. They support the public option in overhauling the health-care system, they oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan, they are pro-choice. It's hardly the ideological contrasts we saw in the 1978 and 1982 Democratic gubernatorial faceoffs in Massachusetts between a liberal, Michael Dukakis, and a conservative, Ed King. Last night's encounter had, for the most part, all four Dems on the same page.
My assessment will go according to how they appeared on the stage at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.
Martha Coakley: Coakley, the state attorney general, is widely considered the frontrunner in the race for the Democratic nomination. Much of the pre-debate blather was about how she would probably be cautious and try to protect her lead. I didn't see any of that. For the record, she is the lone woman in the race, and as a statewide elected official, the best known. I saw no evidence that her position as frontrunner was jeopardized based on last night's performance. But at the same time, she didn't sparkle, and nothing she said stood out as memorable. I didn't come away from the debate with a sense of who she was.
Alan Khazei: This is the first time Khazei, the co-founder of City Year, a national service program, has run for office. He is a very liberal, very earnest and very serious candidate. He is also very smart. He approached most answers with considerable thought. But he was also a bit long-winded, and was often chided by the moderator for going well over his allotted time. Filled with tons of facts and statistics, I almost felt that he relied on them a bit too much. And I'm not sure he cracked a smile during the one-hour debate, though his closing statement -- when he praised his rivals for the job they were doing and suggested they remain in their current positions in order to continue their good work -- had a whiff of humor. He also reminded viewers -- over and over and over -- that he is the child of an immigrant, that his father, a doctor, came from Iran. It wasn't something I was about to forget, especially after the ninth time he said it. And yet he still felt the need to keep repeating it. Did you know John Edwards' father worked in a mill all his life?
Michael Capuano: Capuano has been in Congress for more than a decade, and unlike those candidates who tout their "outsider" images, he made it clear that his Capitol Hill experience was a plus. He knows how sausage is made, he knows how to forge deals. You get the point. And he probably invoked Ted Kennedy's name more than the others -- there is a sense that he is the choice of the Kennedy family. At one point, he clearly ducked the question when he was asked about issuing drivers licenses to illegal aliens. I also thought there were times where he came off as too angry, and then too cutesy, and a bit casual as well. But there were other times where he seemed to speak the language of those who will go to the polls on Dec. 8. In watching him, I often felt like I was watching less a member of Congress and more a small-town mayor; in fact, that's exactly what he was before coming to Washington (mayor of Somerville for 10 years).
Stephen Pagliuca: Pagliuca, another first-time candidate who is a managing director at Bain Capitol and the co-owner of the Boston Celtics, was clearly the least impressive of the four. His speaking style and command of the issues seemed less polished and less informed. Following Capuano in most of the responses, he had this surprising habit of constantly saying, "I agree with Michael." He must have done that close to a dozen times. I half expected him to endorse Capuano before the debate was over. I'm not exactly sure who might have been pursuaded to vote for Pagliuca by his performance except for some diehard Celtics fans.
Fred Thys of member station WBUR sees it as a difference of style but not substance.
Boston Globe editorial.
Globe columnist Joan Vennochi notes the lack of passion from anyone.
Boston Herald's Laura Crimaldi assesses Coakley's performance.
A conservative reaction from the Right Condition blog.
Democratic primary: Dec. 8.
Special election: Jan. 19.