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Differences Of Style, Not Substance, In First Senate Debate03:42
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Correction appended — At the first broadcast debate of the U.S. Senate campaign Monday night, venture capitalist Stephen Pagliuca and City Year co-founder Alan Khazei showed they still have a lot to learn about how government works.

Moderator Peter Meade asked Khazei what he would do to keep Hanscom Air Force Base and the Natick Soldier Systems Center from being shut down.

Attorney General Martha Coakley (Pool photo by Yoon Byun/The Boston Globe)
Attorney General Martha Coakley (Pool photo by Yoon Byun/The Boston Globe)

"Well, Peter," Khazei replied, "like Sen. Kennedy, I'm going to seek a seat on the Armed Services Committee, so I'll be right there in the middle of this to make sure that we protect Hanscom and these jobs in Massachusetts."

But the base closure process is designed to take influence away from legislators. It's a point Khazei seems to have missed. Pagliuca, too, appeared to think that members of Congress decide which bases to close.

"The first thing I would do is identify the senators who are backing the closure," Pagliuca said.

Before the debate, a poll by Western New England College revealed that most people in Massachusetts still hadn't heard of the three men running against Attorney General Martha Coakley: Pagliuca, Khazei and U.S. Rep. Mike Capuano. Monday night was their chance to make an impression.

Alan Khazei (Pool photo by Yoon Byun/The Boston Globe)
Alan Khazei (Pool photo by Yoon Byun/The Boston Globe)

On the economy, they tried. Meade asked the candidates whether they would support another economic stimulus and if so, how they would pay for it. Pagliuca said he would get that money from tax increases.

"We shouldn't go crazy, because it would kill the economy, but you have to look at increasing the marginal rate," Pagliuca said. "It's at 35 percent for the wealthiest individuals. Many countries are at 40, 38. We can handle that. We'd have to look at sliding increases in the capital gains tax. "

Khazei and Capuano also said they would support another stimulus and pay for it by raising taxes.

On foreign policy, Pagliuca and Capuano opposed a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. Coakley and Khazei fudged the question.

Rep. Michael Capuano (Pool photo by Yoon Byun/The Boston Globe)
Rep. Michael Capuano (Pool photo by Yoon Byun/The Boston Globe)

For much of the debate, it was hard to distinguish between the candidates' positions. All four opposed sending more troops to Afghanistan, and they all supported giving illegal immigrants a way to become citizens.

As for health care, all four candidates backed President Obama's proposal for a public health insurance plan that would compete with private insurers. The president has called for bipartisan reform, but Coakley said Democrats should pass health insurance reform without waiting for Republicans to join them.

"Bipartisanship is nice," Coakley said. "The president has certainly said he wants to do that, and that's a good goal, but I think that we need good progress on this. We need to see a result, and so if we can pass a public option, because that's so important, I think it's important that without that you have only reform around the edges. You don't have any transparency or competition."

Stephen Pagliuca (Pool photo by Yoon Byun/The Boston Globe)
Stephen Pagliuca (Pool photo by Yoon Byun/The Boston Globe)

At all times, the candidates remained polite with one another. On health care, Capuano agreed with Coakley, but his answer sounded very different from hers. She tried to be measured. He went for feisty.

"When you have the votes, you go for it," Capuano said. "They didn't wait for it on the WPA. They didn't wait for it on Social Security. They didn't wait for it on Medicare. We should not wait for this to make sure that everybody's happy because we'll never make everybody happy. We need to make health care for everybody and keep it as affordable as we can as soon as we can."

Capuano may have needed this debate more than any of the candidates. He has said that he wants to make this a two-person race between Coakley and himself. But according to a poll released Sunday, Capuano is in a statistical tie with Pagliuca for second place, behind Coakley.


Correction: In the broadcast version of this story, the reporter incorrectly stated that three Senate candidates are tied for second place in a recent poll. In fact, Capuano and Pagliuca are in a statistical tie for second place among Democratic and unenrolled voters, but Khazei is ranked fourth.

This program aired on October 27, 2009.

Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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