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Senate candidates clash in second-to-last debate

Glen Johnson | 1/13/2010, 6:50 a.m.
Candidates for the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., from the left, Republican candidate Scott Brown, Democratic candidate Martha Coakley, and Joseph L. Kennedy, a Libertarian candidate running as an independent and who is no relation to the late senator, make last minute preparations before a debate is taped at the WBZ-TV studios in Boston, Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2009. AP /Steven Senne

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Scott Brown used their sharpest terms yet as the two Massachusetts politicians clashed last Friday in the second-to-last debate of the campaign to succeed the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

Coakley, facing news reports of a tightening race, matched Brown’s aggressiveness, accusing her opponent of supporting the “status quo” in Washington. Some national Democrats have been accusing her of being lackadaisical in prior debates as she seeks to maintain a pivotal 60th Democratic vote in the U.S. Senate while President Barack Obama makes a final push for his health care overhaul.

“He pulls numbers out of nowhere that he can’t support,” Coakley said at one point, answering Brown’s charge she supports $2 trillion in new spending.

“And what Scott is saying is that he supports the status quo. Let’s maintain what we have. Let’s pretend that we don’t have an economic recession. That we don’t need health care reform. That we don’t have a climate change issue and everything will right itself. And he ignores completely how we got where we are.”

At another point, Coakley took dead aim at one of Brown’s recent talking points: how his experience as a 30-year attorney in the Army National Guard informs why terror suspects should be tried before military tribunals rather than civilian courts.

“It is important to do this quickly,” Coakley, the state’s attorney general, said in referring to the trial of accused Christmas Day airline bomb suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

“Conversely, we have a dismal failure with the military tribunal system. For the $100 million every year that it takes to keep it open, we have exactly three convictions over a period of time. ... It was incredibly ineffective,” she said.

Brown, bristling, said, “I couldn’t disagree with you more. To have us pay for the attorneys for the people who are trying to kill us is wrong.”

The state senator said Coakley was “missing the point” by emphasizing a speedy trial. He said the military justice system would allow more effective intelligence gathering.

“The point is to find out what’s next. We’re at war,” he said.

Again, the third candidate in the race, independent Joseph L. Kennedy, was largely relegated to the sidelines. The Libertarian businessman is not related to the late senator’s famed political family.

He used the debate to highlight a platform of reduced government spending and the return of U.S. troops to domestic soil.

Despite the tart tone of the debate, its effect on the race is in question. It was taped at mid-afternoon on a Friday, to be broadcast before WGBY-TV’s western Massachusetts public television audience at 7 p.m. Voters in the more populous eastern part of the state had to link to a Webcast to see the full proceedings.

The candidates had a final debate Monday, sponsored by the Senate institute being built in Kennedy’s honor. The Democrat died Aug. 25 of brain cancer after a nearly 47-year Senate career. The special election is Jan. 19.

At another point in the debate, Coakley asked Brown if he favored allowing the “Bush-Cheney” tax cuts remain in effect at the end of the year.

Brown replied, “I’m not Bush-Cheney; you’re not running against them. I’m Scott Brown from Wrentham and you’re running against me.”

Coakley similarly expressed frustration at Brown’s charge that she supports a war tax to pay for military action in Afghanistan.

“I’ve never mentioned a war tax. Let me be clear,” she said.

During a Dec. 2 debate sponsored by New England Cable News, Coakley and her three rivals for the Democratic nomination were asked if they supported such a tax. One said he definitely did, two said they definitely did not and Coakley said she would consider one.

(Glen Johnson is an AP Political Writer)