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The five candidates seeking to become the state's next governor squared off in their first televised debate in western Massachusetts on Monday with Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Charlie Baker working to draw sharper distinctions between their candidacies.
One area where the two staked out different territory was on pre-kindergarten education.
Coakley said she would spend $150 million to eliminate a waiting list of 17,000 children seeking state vouchers for pre-kindergarten programs.
Baker said that while he supports targeted investments in early childhood education, it's equally important to have good schools so children don't lose any early advantage as they advance to higher grades.
The two also differed on spending on road, bridge and transportation projects.
While both said they supported spending on critical infrastructure projects, Coakley tweaked Baker for his support for a ballot question that would repeal a portion of a law automatically linking future increases in the state gas tax to inflation.
"Given what Charlie Baker said tonight, I'm surprised he doesn't support the gas tax," Coakley said.
Baker said if elected he would sit down with local mayors to find out their top three or four priorities and make a pledge to the public to act on those.
"They need to know what the plan is and they need to hold the public officials who develop that plan accountable," Baker said.
The two agreed on other issues.
Both criticized the lengthy rollout of the state's marijuana medical dispensaries and said the state should continue to invest in public higher education. Baker said the state should also look at other higher education options like offering three-year degrees.
The hour-long debate at CityStage in Springfield gave independent candidates Evan Falchuk, Jeff McCormick and Scott Lively a chance to challenge the major party candidates.
Falchuk, who is running under the United Independent Party banner, criticized the political system on Beacon Hill, which he said has the wrong priorities. McCormick, a venture capitalist, said he could bring fresh ideas to state government.
One dramatic moment came during a question on state infrastructure spending when Lively, a pastor and anti-gay rights activist, talked about the declining "moral infrastructure" in the state, citing the promotion of "sexual perversion to children in the public schools."
Baker responded calling that a veiled reference to gay people.
"As the brother of a gay man who lives and is married in Massachusetts, I want you to know that I found that kind of offensive, and I would appreciate you not saying things like that from this point forward," Baker said.
"I believe in the Bible, Charlie. I'm sorry that you don't," Lively responded.
Recent polling has suggested a tight race between Baker, who ran unsuccessfully against Gov. Deval Patrick four years ago, and Coakley, the state's attorney general who lost a U.S. Senate race to Republican Scott Brown in 2010.
The three independent candidates have remained stuck in the low single digits.
Earlier in the day, Baker offered an alternative version of an earned sick-time proposal that will go before voters in November, while Coakley proposed a series of ideas that she said would strengthen the state's innovation economy, including doubling the number of paid internships supported by the state in the life sciences, clean energy and technology sectors.
The election is Nov. 4.
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