O'Reilly strikes, Kerry bridles in TV debate
Senator's vote on Iraq, commitment challenged
US Senator John F. Kerry never seemed very eager for this debate, and from the opening moments it was clear why. Edward O'Reilly, an unpolished Gloucester lawyer who is Kerry's only Democratic challenger in 24 years, came out swinging, throwing jabs about the senator's six-year-old Iraq war vote and questioning his commitment to serve out another full term in the Senate.
"Will John Kerry give a commitment to stay the six years if he's elected?" O'Reilly said in the first - and probably only - debate before the state's Democratic primary on Sept. 16. "And, if he won't give that commitment . . . will he put up the millions of dollars it will cost the taxpayers of Massachusetts for a special election?"
Kerry, who four years ago was at the political pinnacle as he debated with a sitting president on the international stage, appeared miffed at the question. He told moderator Jon Keller that he thought the debate format forbade the candidates from posing questions.
"I didn't know we were asking each other questions," Kerry said. "So, if we can break the rules, that's one thing, but -"
"He didn't break the rules," Keller said. "Go ahead."
"I'm happy to answer it," Kerry said. "I've said consistently I am only running for one job. I'm not asking for any other job. I'm not looking for any other job. I intend to serve my term. If I'm elected, that's what I'm doing."
During the 19-minute debate, which will be broadcast on WBZ-TV at 8:30 tomorrow morning, O'Reilly repeatedly went on the attack as Kerry tried to fend him off.
O'Reilly criticized Kerry for his vote to authorize the war in Iraq in 2002, saying Kerry voted that way to advance his political career - an issue that dogged Kerry's 2004 run for president. He suggested that a senator of 24 years should have achieved more clout than chairmanship of the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, an allegation Kerry called "insulting" and quickly added that he had secured $267 million for small businesses in Massachusetts through that committee.
When O'Reilly alleged that Kerry had not used his large campaign account enough to help other Democratic candidates, Kerry said, "That is plain, flat untrue," and cited nearly $30 million he gave to the Democratic National Committee in 2004.
"I'm proud of the job that I've done, and I'm proud of what I've delivered to this state," Kerry told reporters after the debate. "I think I have a strong record of accomplishment, and I'm very proud of it."
Kerry has not faced a Democratic challenger since he won the seat in 1984, and since that time, the only serious race for the seat was in 1996, when he was challenged by Governor William F. Weld, a Republican.
Going up against a longtime incumbent and 2004 presidential nominee, O'Reilly faces an uphill battle. He has little experience in elective politics - a two-year term on the Gloucester City Council in the 1980s and a two-year term on the Gloucester School Committee in the 1990s - and is massively underfunded, with 2 percent of the $8.8 million that Kerry has in his coffers.
The winner of the Sept. 16 primary will face Republican Jeff Beatty in November.
O'Reilly's lack of experience showed when he stumbled over a question about how he would protect a federal line item for technology funding. He said he would consult with the New England Council on
Kerry frequently talked in very specific terms, at times at considerable length, as he cited subcommittee appointments and detailed why a filibuster-proof 60 votes were needed to push through legislation in the US Senate.
Nearly half of the debate yesterday was about Kerry's vote to authorize the Iraq war in 2002.
O'Reilly criticized Kerry for not reading the National Intelligence Estimate, a classified compendium of intelligence reports, before voting - an allegation Kerry said after the debate was "just silliness."
"I did something better than read it - and it really shows Ed's lack of understanding of what due diligence is in Washington," Kerry said. "I actually met with the CIA teams. I actually went to the Pentagon and sat down with the secretary of defense."
For weeks, O'Reilly had been hammering Kerry for not agreeing to a debate. In July he proposed having 23 debates and had been criticizing Kerry for not quickly agreeing to it. Two weeks ago, both campaigns agreed to the WBZ debate.
Avoiding debates is a common approach for incumbents, who don't want to give their opponents free airtime and risk the chance of a gaffe.
In his reelection campaign in 2004, Mayor Thomas M. Menino assiduously avoided debating his opponent, Maura A. Hennigan, although he agreed to face her in an hourlong lunch hosted by the Globe at the Locke-Ober restaurant.
Several days before the 2006 election, Secretary of State William F. Galvin agreed to debate Jill Stein, a Green-Rainbow Party candidate. But the ground rules were that there would be no audience, it would be held at an undisclosed location, and it would last five minutes. It lasted 16.
Kerry entered the television studio yesterday triumphantly, shaking hands with dozens of cheering supporters outside waving signs and chanting his name.
O'Reilly, who had never participated in a debate before, arrived about an hour early. None of his supporters came because he sent them an e-mail this week saying they should not waste their time on a debate that was too short and one they couldn't view in person.
"I would debate every day right now through the primary," O'Reilly said after the debate. "I think it's really important. . . . Democracy is not a spectator sport; it's a participatory sport. And I think John Kerry needs to participate in the sport of politics."
Kerry doesn't seem eager for more debates.
"This is what we negotiated, this is what we agree to, and we've done it," he said. "I go back to work in Washington. I've got a full-time job, unlike my opponent."
O'Reilly, when asked what his best moment was, said, "That I didn't faint."
Asked for his assessment of the debate, Kerry shrugged.
"It was fine," he said. "It went."
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.