The Democrats' final debate | Renee Loth

For candidates, a missed opportunity to offer visions

By Renee Loth
December 3, 2009

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WITH FOUR US Senate candidates who agree on all but a few nuances of the issues, questioners in the final televised debate last night tried to tease out differences in character or personality. The candidates were asked about the foibles of Tiger Woods; whether President Obama deserved the Nobel Peace Prize; if each of them is too hot, too cold, too inside, or too rich; even who is the most likable. The upshot was four flummoxed Democrats singing verses of Popeye’s song “I yam what I yam’’ and not offering voters enough about their vision for the nation.

The truncated campaign to fill the seat long held by the late Senator Ted Kennedy has not allowed for much fluidity. Attorney General Martha Coakley remains the cool and collected prosecutor; Congressman Michael Capuano is still the passionate populist with a record of “getting things done;’’ Steve Pagliuca is the self-financed businessman doing his best to display his bootstraps; and Alan Khazei is the idealistic outsider trying to rise on a wave of civic virtue. As the least well-known candidate, Khazei benefits most from the exposure: He is well-informed and often tries to be the high-ground conciliator when things get testy.

And testy things got: Capuano was visibly straining against advice not to be too pugnacious; when he finally snapped at Pagliuca (“Can I say something without him yelling at me?’’) it came off as whiney instead. Pagliuca accused Capuano of exaggerating the dangers to abortion rights in the health reform bill, equating his dire predictions of back-alley abortions with death panels and leveling the ultimate insult: comparing Capuano to Sarah Palin. There was heat but little light.

Coakley was measured and lawyerly even on a question about her personal life, talking about “zones of privacy’’ and rarely venturing beyond her experience as a prosecutor. Voters could be forgiven for wondering what her priorities are.

Debates are vital to democracy because they provide unscripted moments. But last night’s debate made a viewer hungry for the well-rehearsed closing statements.

Renee Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.