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Payne & Domke: Lackluster Debate Leaves A Default Winner08:19
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The four Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate, from left, Attorney General Martha Coakley, Alan Khazei, Rep. Michael Capuano and Stephen Pagliuca at a televised debate in Boston on Monday. (Yoon Byun/The Boston Globe)
The four Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate, from left, Attorney General Martha Coakley, Alan Khazei, Rep. Michael Capuano and Stephen Pagliuca at a televised debate in Boston on Monday. (Yoon Byun/The Boston Globe)

Do you like your candidates cool, like Martha Coakley, or hot, like Michael Capuano?

Democratic political analyst Dan Payne says that's the question voters are asking themselves after Monday night's debate of the Democratic U.S. Senate candidates.

Broad agreement on the issues made the debate one of style more than of policy. Attorney General Martha Coakley remained cool and measured, while U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano, of Somerville, "needs to have his caffeine intake monitored closely," Payne said.

Republican analyst Todd Domke agrees the candidates sounded "almost identical" on policy issues and that Capuano lost ground in likability.

"He really failed to motivate undecided voters, because in terms of persona, he lost the debate," Domke said.

Coakley appeared to come out ahead from the debate, if by default.

WBUR Topics: Sprint To The Senate
WBUR Topics: Sprint To The Senate

"I was surprised that with Martha Coakley being in the lead in most polls, that none of the non-Coakley candidates tried to take her on, tried to knock her down a bit," Payne said. Added Domke: "I think they feared backlash if it seemed like the three male candidates perhaps were ganging up on the female candidate."

One reason may have been the format of the debate itself, which was more like a panel discussion than an actual debate — candidates did not have much of an opportunity to confront one another on issues even where they did disagree.

Domke said Coakley's performance was "lackluster" and "uninteresting," but she did not make mistakes.

"She did what she had to do. ... She didn't give them fodder, she didn't give them ammunition, so she came out on top," he said.

Payne said the best moment for Coakley in the debate was her answer about increasing troops in Afghanistan, where she talked about the loss of lives.

"She was really playing an empathetic woman and probably gave a lot of people who weren't sure about her on the war, (she) gave them some comfort," he said.

Payne and Domke agree the other candidates — City Year co-founder Alan Khazei and Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca — are obvious newcomers who have to rethink their messages.

While Khazei came across as genuine and sincere, Domke said, he did not galvanize.

"He didn't come up with any surprise to make people think, 'Oh, let me listen to this guy more'," Domke said, adding that at times he felt Khazei's long answers felt more like he was filibustering.

Payne said Khazei needs to define his "unique selling proposition" — cover one big point instead of lots of little ones. "He's new at this, he's never done this before, and it showed."

The same is true of Pagliuca, Payne said, adding that the businessman appeared stiff and scripted throughout the debate.

While Pagliuca emphasized his business experience, Domke said it probably would not play well among Democratic primary voters.

"If it is a two-horse race, Martha (Coakley) is riding a stallion and Capuano is on a Shetland pony," Domke said. "He's far behind and the other two are still at the gate."

Domke said the three male candidates need to reassess their strategies and change the dynamic of the race so Coakley loses ground with voters.

"Pretty soon this will be a TV commercials campaign and not driven by debates," Payne said. Because Monday night's debate was not one that anybody wants to sit through again.

This program aired on October 27, 2009.

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