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No sparks, but debate chews on

TODAY'S DEMOCRATIC debate was not one you'd mistake for the political equivalent of the Fourth of July.

Largely devoid of fireworks, it did qualify as a thoughtful, substantive examination of the issues. (Have the cost savings that could accrue from reducing medical paperwork ever been so thoroughly discussed?)

And certainly it was a debate that had to make Attorney General Thomas Reilly’s camp happy.

Of the three Democratic hopefuls, Reilly made the most of his opportunities, with a comparatively crisp and focused presentation, and a willingness to confront most questions head on.

That was particularly evident in the debate’s second half, when New England Cable News anchor R.D. Sahl tried to inject some life into the sometimes plodding proceedings with some fast, sharp, pointed questions.

One query of the queries he put to the candidates trio was whether they thought it would be permissible for the Legislature to use parliamentary tactics to defeat a proposed antigay-marriage constitutional amendment next month, rather than bringing it to a vote. ‘‘I am opposed to the constitutional amendment, but yes, I think the Legislature should vote,’’ Reilly said. ‘‘I would vote against it if I was a legislator, but yes, they should vote on it.’’

That was a model of clarity compared to his two rivals, who clearly didn’t want to address the question head on. Deval Patrick said he ‘‘wished they wouldn’t’’ vote on the amendment, but added, ‘‘I am going to let the Legislature run the Legislature.’’ Queried after the debate, Patrick told reporters ‘‘that if there is a parliamentary way to prevent it coming to a vote, fine.’’ (The view here is that if legislators decide to deny the joint meeting of the Legislature a quorum, that is a legitimate expression of opposition.)

Chris Gabrieli, who noted his opposition, simply refused to take a position, either during the debate or afterward. Trying to sidestep thorny issues is becoming something of a trend with him, as Glen Johnson of the Associated Press pointed out in a recent story. Here’s the problem: Too much finesse can make a candidate seem awfully fuzzy.

Reilly had another good moment when he was asked how he squared his support of the state’s biotech industry with his call for importing drugs from Canada, something that industry sees as a threat. He had seen too many seniors forced to choose between paying for their prescriptions or paying for the heat or putting food on the table, he said. ‘‘That is why I was the first attorney general in this country to call for the safe reimportation of medicine from Canada,’’ he said. ‘‘There are individuals who are caught in the middle of this that are frankly more important to me.’’

Where his clarity seemed unconvincing was in once again using his support for rolling the income tax back from 5.3 to 5 percent in one year, as a way to differentiate himself from his rivals.

There, Patrick strikes me as most politically consistent in saying that the state can’t afford the priorities he cares about if it cuts taxes right now. Gabrieli sought middle ground, saying the will of the voters will should be honored, but that Reilly’s timetable was too speedy to be responsible. ‘‘There is a very clear way to do it ... doing it based on economic triggers,’’ said Gabrieli, who told me afterward that he will unveil such a plan soon.

On the issue of charter schools, Gabrieli made an important point at Patrick’s expense when Patrick was asked whether the various conditions he attaches to his supposed support of charter schools isn’t tantamount to opposing to them. Denying that was the case, Patrick said: ‘‘For me, the most compelling argument for charters is that they would serve as a laboratory for innovation that then could be imported into the district schools, so I am very interested that they be accountable for that kind of contribution.’’

But Gabrieli pointed out the obvious weakness in Patrick’s stand.

‘‘I don’t think the burden of spreading innovation from charter schools to district schools ought to be put on the charter schools,’’ he said, noting that while most of charters have a longer school day, his own efforts to get the traditional public schools to adopt a longer day has have met with real resistance.

It would be smart to find a format that makes these debates livelier.

But even if this one provided more agreement than contrast, it should give dedicated Democrats some food for thought.

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