Governor Candidates Bicker in Debate

Republican gubernatorial candidate W. Mitt Romney squared off against Democrat Shannon P. O’Brien in an inconclusive debate last night at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

The event was the second of three debates leading up to the state’s Nov. 5 general election.

Growing somewhat heated as the night progressed, the debate saw the two candidates trade jabs outside the structure of the debate’s question-and-answer format.

Attempting to moderate was CNN’s Judy Woodruff, who tried to keep order as the two sparred on issues ranging from health care and education to the state’s budget crunch and debt burden. The candidates focused on clarifying their own stances while highlighting their mutual differences.

On the issue of school vouchers, the two exchanged back-and-forth comments after O’Brien challenged Romney to join her in sending a letter to President Bush opposing vouchers on the federal level.

Romney insisted that he thought vouchers were not appropriate at the state level, but indicated his support for federal voucher funds for certain public schools.

Put on the defensive after a panelist’s question highlighted her changing support of abortion rights during her early days as a state senator, O’Brien defended her overall record of supporting a woman’s right to choose.

“I became aware,” she said of her early career, “that a woman’s health included the right to control her own body, and I did shift my position on abortion.”

At the same time, O’Brien attacked Romney for his “multiple choice” stance on the abortion issue—a phrase coined by Sen. Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy ’54-’56 (D-Mass.) in defending his seat from Romney in 1994.

“It comes down to a matter of trust,” she said. “People know that they can trust me on this issue.”

Romney countered by telling a story of his mother’s unsuccessful bid for a senate seat which he asserted she lost because of her stance in support of abortion rights.

“Let me be clear,” he said. “I will preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose, and this should not be made a political issue in this campaign.”

Each candidate also offered differing strategies for dealing with the state’s economic and fiscal woes.

Romney argued that his two-pronged strategy, focusing both on helping troubled in-state companies and recruiting new companies to the Bay State, would be effective.

O’Brien attacked Romney’s plan, saying he put too much emphasis on bringing new business into Massachusetts.

“My opponent doesn’t understand,” she said. “We will [generate] increased tax revenues by growing the companies that are already here.”

In turn, Romney faulted O’Brien for failing to fulfill her promise to lower the per capita state debt, which he said is now the highest of any state in the nation.

Debating the Debate

Harsh words were not limited to the debate hall, with three candidates taking legal action against the media consortium organizing the event.

Green Party candidate Jill E. Stein ’73, Libertarian Carla A. Howell and independent candidate Barbara Johnson filed suit over their exclusion from the debate, but were unsuccessful in gaining entry.

At the beginning of last night’s debate, a man in the crowd interrupted Romney’s opening statement, calling the debate “a mockery of democracy” and calling for Stein’s presence on the stage.

Romney responded by saying that he would have chosen to include all candidates, but it had not been his choice who to include in the debate.

“I hope that at the next debate, all the candidates will be allowed on the stage,” he said.

O’Brien attacked Romney for his refusal to have more than three debates, calling them “job interviews” for the governor’s office.

But Romney said he thought O’Brien’s proposals were excessive, adding there was no need for people to watch so many events.

“It’s very important that our citizen’s get a good night’s sleep” he said over boos in the audience.

“I don’t think you give [Massachusetts residents] enough credit for their intelligence,” O’Brien countered.

—Staff writer David S. Hirsch can be reached at hirsch@fas.harvard.edu.