NEWTON, Mass. — A debate broke out when the 4th Congressional District debate was over at New England Cable News Monday night. The three Republican candidates looking to succeed Rep. Barney Frank in Congress debated uneventfully for half an hour. They agreed on almost every issue. Then, the candidates stepped out into the lobby.
It all started with a question about how each candidate thought he or she could beat Joseph Kennedy III, assuming he wins the Democratic primary. Mitt Romney's former mental health commissioner, Elizabeth Childs, of Brookline, began with her political analysis.
"This district polls at 75 percent fiscally conservative and 75 percent socially liberal and moderate," Childs said. "A social conservative cannot win in this district."
The social conservatives Childs was referring to are her two opponents, Fall River dentist David Steinhof and Norfolk entrepreneur Sean Bielat.
"The only way to win as a Republican in Massachusetts is to draw the independent vote in the majority, and to draw one of out of three Democrats," Childs said. "It's absolutely critical that the Republican Party send forth a nominee who can do that."
Childs, of course, sees herself as that candidate. Bielat, who lost to Frank two years ago, objected to Childs' analysis.
"Factually, it's incorrect," Bielat said.
Bielat pointed out that with redistricting, the gap between Republicans and Democrats has narrowed. That's when Childs threw her first rhetorical punch.
"You lost by 11 points," Childs said. "You lost by 11 points in a year when Barney Frank was absolutely vulnerable."
And then the debate turned from political analysis to personal attack. Childs turned to the argument she seemed like she'd been waiting to make all along.
"But the real issue here is, Sean, you are not electable in this district because you have a transparency problem," Childs said.
Childs is searching for an attack strategy. She trails Bielat in fund-raising. Through his feisty race against Frank four years ago, Bielat has connected with voters all over the district. So earlier in the race, Childs tried to get traction by making an issue of the fact that Bielat would not reveal his employer. He finally did; he's CEO of a website called OneClickPolitics.com. It helps voters get in touch with members of Congress.
Bielat said he didn't want to reveal his employer because he wanted the website to be seen as bipartisan. On Monday, Childs pounced with a new charge.
"You took $130,000 over the past seven months to work on a website," Childs said. "That's a quarter of a million dollars per year being paid to someone who's running for Congress to do a website that is the most basic thing. That is not being transparent with the voters."
"So you have actually no facts," Bielat replied. "So what are you alleging?"
"Who pays someone running for Congress a quarter of a million dollars a year to consult for a website like this?" Childs asked.
"Are you making an allegation?" Bielat responded. "Because if you are, why don't you just say what the allegation is."
"You have not come clean with the voters of this district about who is paying you and why," Childs said.
"What are you alleging?" Bielat asked.
"Nobody knows who's paying you," Childs said.
"You're not making any sense," Bielat replied.
Since Childs would not make her inuendo explicit, Steinhof asked Bielat the question point blank: Is his salary a way for people to channel political contributions to him without declaring them? Bielat's answer: No.
"I'm telling you," Bielat said to Childs, "if you guys are alleging something, good to go. But if you're not, then shut up, frankly."
Childs withdrew, leaving Bielat wishing he had not taken the bait.
"I shouldn't have gotten sucked into that," he said.
This race, in the 4th Congressional District, is not the one Republicans see as their best shot at taking a Massachusetts seat in Congress. But it promises to be interesting.
This program aired on July 31, 2012.