In early-February ward caucuses. Lt. Gov. Thomas P. O'Neill III finished a distant third to Gov. Edward J. King and former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis in the non-binding contest for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. In a survey released last week of registered voters likely to participate in the Democratic primary. O'Neill also finished third, more than 30 percentage points behind front-runner Dukakis.
Small wonder then that O'Neill aides are hailing tonight's debate, the first head-on confrontation between the candidates, as the official start of the campaign. "For a lot of viewers, this is the first opportunity to see that there are choices in the race." O'Neill's campaign manager Lawrence Moulter said yesterday.
More than 500,000 viewers are expected to watch the hour-long debate on to Channel 4, WBZ-TV tonight at 8 p.m. During the event, sponsored by the Massachusetts Young Democrats, the candidates will respond to questions on taxation and revenues from a panel of three newsmen, as well as from each other.
All three candidates have spent a considerable amount of time preparing for the debate Dukakis aides say he has devoted the last two days' exclusively to briefing. King aides returned to the books after Patriots' Day festivities.
If any candidate stands to benefit from the deliberations, it is O'Neill. Dukakis and King have already established reputations and political differences between them have become clear. In most cases, "you don't win elections on debates, you lose them," one political observer said, explaining that the only way either can significantly change his reputations is by a major gaffe.
O'Neill starts tonight with an almost clean slate. Though he has held the second-highest positions in the Common-wealth for eight years, he has never had to make a major policy decision. With the lowest budget of any of the three, he has not been able to run as big a media campaign as his opponents. King has since January sponsored $400,000 in television and runs while Dukakis has run radio ads. Since O'Neill has not yet taken to the airwaves, the debates present his first opportunity to address a mass audience.
The best way for O'Neill to take advantage of the opportunity is to establish himself as the only liberal candidate in the contest, taking advantage of King's perceived shift toward the center. In the last debate between Dukakis and King before the 1978 election--King successfully established himself as the anti-crime, anti-tax-increase candidate. In this campaign so far Dukakis has tried to play down the split avoiding any major tax policy statements and recently proposing his own crime reduction program.
But while the governor and his predecessor quibble about who has been tougher on crime or who has preserved lower tax rates, the lieutenant governor will get the chance to present his recently developed platform which calls for tax increases to provide funds for local aid.
"I would expect that you are going to see O'Neill emerge, appealing to the traditional Democratic principles which he will blame Dukakis for abandoning," political commentator Avi Nelson said yesterday.
If O'Neill fails to dominate the debate, he may end up hurting King's attempt to close the gap between Dukakis and himself. O'Neill is closer ideologically to DuKakis, and a double-barrelled attack on the current administration may drive home a strongly negative impression.
Some observers expect the candidates to use the evening to define what issues they will clearly use in the coming campaign. King effectively set the agenda last time around by giving answers unrelated to the questions, and instead using the event to present his own checklist of issues.
In the campaign so far. King has continued to dominate the discussion, and tonight's debate will indicate whether Dukakis will continue merely responding to allegations about his previous administration or will come up with counter proposals and issues of his own.
Each candidate will open the debate with a three-minute prepared speech then three reporters will take turns asking each candidate a question. Next, the candidates will pose questions to their opponents, and they will each give three minute closing comments.
The final plans for the debate were decided in early March after weeks of squabbling among the candidates O'Neill, desperate for attention, had said all along that he would debate under almost any conditions. But the other two differed over the determination of the subject matter King all along wanted to limit the debate to taxes, which he obviously thinks is his predecessor's weakest issue. Dukakis said he would only participate in a general debate, hoping to score points on King on the issue of corruption Focusing the exchange on taxes and revenue was the compromise.
The Democratic primary, which will be held September 9, will determine the official party nominee. The convention which opens May 20, will make a non binding endorsement. Dukakis, who won the majority of the delegates in February 6 caucuses is expected to gain that pledge.