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Election '96: Kerry vs. Weld

News Analysis

By Richard M. Burnes

When Massachusetts voters go to the polls on Tuesday to elect their next United States Senator, they will not be suffering from a lack of information.

After an unprecedented series of eight debates, the differences between Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and his Republican challenger, Gov. William F. Weld '66, have become almost as clear as the disparities between their alma maters--Yale and Harvard.

Many pundits agree that this unprecedented exposure has been a coup for Bay State voters.

Calling the series of debates "terrific," Nicholas T. Mitropoulos, executive director of the Kennedy School's Taubman Center For State and Local Government says he feels these debates can serve as a model for future campaigns.

Although the political junkies who showed up at all eight of the "blue blood battles" complained of experiencing frequent deja vu in the final confrontations, the repetition served its purpose of informing voters about the candidates.

The series enabled each candidate to sharpen his message and hone his attacks on his opponent, leading to several well-articulated, evenly balanced exchanges.

For the vast majority of voters, who watched only one or two of the contests, repetition was not a serious problem.

"It was definitely productive," says Meg Vaillancourt who covered the debates for the Boston Globe. "You get to see what their priorities really are."

Indeed, it is now clear for what the two men stand.

Over the past seven months, Kerry has positioned himself as moderate Democrat.

He is careful to assure voters of his responsible fiscal practices but stresses his compassion on social issues including education, health care, the environment and welfare.

"What I've been fighting for in the United States Senate is fairness," Kerry said in this week's Faneuil Hall debate.

Weld, a libertarian and former Adams House resident, has run on his gubernatorial record of cutting taxes, fighting crime and restructuring the state's welfare system.

But despite the now-lucid platform of both candidates, some say the debates did not achieve their potential.

Robert Turner, an editorial page editor for The Boston Globe, says he believes that the public missed an opportunity to hear a more exhaustive, issue-oriented discourse.

"In retrospect, it would be better to carve out issues to focus on in each debate," Turner says.

Turner's comments reflect the sentiment of some in the media, led by U.S. News and World Report Editor James M. Fallows '70, to develop a more structured discussion of issues in political campaigns at all levels.

In an effort that was stymied by the national networks, several Kennedy School faculty members this year proposed giving candidates blocks of free television time to respond to each other.

Turner suggests that in the race between Kerry and Weld, television stations, fearing limited ratings, may have stymied single-issue debates.

But Turner acknowledges that the debates in this campaign did at least have a positive impact on voters.

He suggests that Bay State voters are much better off than their peers in North Carolina, where no debates have occurred between Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and his Democratic challenger, former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt.

Indeed, the debates between Weld and Kerry may represent one factor of a unique campaign.

Both Kerry and Weld are each highly visible and articulate leaders. Neither candidate has much to lose by going head-to-head with his opponent.

In North Carolina, where Helms has much better name recognition than Gantt, the stakes in a debate are not equal.

For similar reasons, Sen. J. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) this year has refused to debate his Democratic challenger, Elliott Close.

And two years ago, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54-'56 (D-Mass.) hedged for several months before agreeing to debate his Republican opponent, venture capitalist W. Mitt Romney, only two times.

Trend-Setting?

The success of the eight debates between Kerry and Weld, however, may permanently alter the nature of American political campaigns.

Regardless of the circumstances, many candidates may find themselves pushed into a hefty debate schedule simply because of the precedent set by Kerry and Weld.

"It certainly sets a standard," Vaillancourt says.

In future years, voters across the country may become as lucky as those across the common-wealth have become this year: From North Adams to Province-town, Bay State residents know what they have to choose from--now they just need to choose.

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