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Despite Prodding, a Volcanic Silber Fails to Erupt

A Debate and Its Aftermath

By Adam L. Berger

In the nine months since John R. Silber announced his candidacy for gorvernor of Massachusetts, he has gained a reputation as a political Vesuvius, erupting at irregular intervals to shock the Bay State political establishment.

Nonetheless, the 64-year old philosopher-turned-politician has cleared all obstacles in his way, steamrolling over all his rivals for the Democratic nomination.

But with only three weeks remaining before election day, Silber has been unable to shake his image of instability--a fact that was driven home in last week's debate by his opponent, William F. Weld '66.

In the first of two televised "Lincoln-Douglas" style matches between the candidates, Weld held compass-like to a single point--that his opponent is not ethically, politically or administratively qualified to govern Massachusetts.

But like Silber's earlier rivals, Weld's strategy met with limited success. Although the Weld campaign is officially "very pleased" with the outcome of the debate, political experts are generally giving the victory to Silber.

"My own view is that Silber came closer to his goals than Weld did," said Martin A. Linsky, lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government.

No `Silber Shocker'

By harping on questions of personal competence and integrity, Weld was hoping to anger his opponent enough to provoke one of the "Silber shockers" for which the Democratic candidate has become known.

Weld's efforts, however proved almost entirely fruitless. Silber's uncharacteristic self-restraint was politically expedient--even though it may never again resurface after election day.

But despite Silber's unlikely equanimity, Weld still may have scored some political points by impugning his opponent's qualifications for the job of governor.

The Republican managed "in a reasonable and congenial manner to raise some questions about some aspects of Silber's record," said Paul Watanabe, professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "From the first question, he was aggressive, which he had to be."

In keeping with this strategy, Weld used his first question to challenge Silber to "come clean" on his financial record. Silber has not yet filed his past year's income tax returns, although the deadline was last week. Weld described the delay as "stonewalling in the face of promises previously made and broken."

Although Silber parried the accusation, claiming that he may even be entitled to a refund on his federal taxes, his response was "obviously not as convincing as filing the income tax return," said Linsky.

Weld's later questions followed the same tack. At one point, the GOP candidate attacked Silber's record as president of Boston University, a record Silber proudly touts as ample managerial experience to lead the state.

"You have brought B.U. into the top 10, but in only one category: expenses," said Weld, who pointed to a 38 percent dropout rate at the university as evidence that Silber's "B.U. miracle" is as corrupt as Dukakis' "Massachusetts miracle."

Preemptive Strike

Silber was clearly anticipating Weld's line of attack, building a "preemptive" defense early in the debate. In his first turn to speak, he called on Weld to forsake negative campaigning.

"I'll restrict myself to my campaign, and you to yours," offered Silber.

Although the offer seemed disingenuous enough, analysts have questioned its sincerity, explaining that the B.U. president might be luring his opponent into an act of political suicide by making his past a sacred cow.

"It wasn't a genuine offer," said Linsky. "It was a tactical manuever."

Silber's offer left Weld in an awkward political position: either agree, and forsake a potent campaign issue in Silber's personal history, or refuse, and risk being labeled a "negative campaigner."

Predictably, Weld chose to refuse, citing the 1988 presidential campaign of Michael S. Dukakis campaign, in which the Massachusetts governor campaigned on his supposed sucess managing the state's finances. "I'm not going to permit a repeat of the 1988 campaign to occur," he said.

But although prevailing wisdom gave Silber the upper hand, experts have noted that the long-term effects of debates are often unpredictable.

"All kinds of analysts are saying Silber won," Watanable said. "I'm not convinced that that's what the public thinks."

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