By Matt Murphy

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

BOSTON -- With just days left in the Democratic primary race for governor, Martha Coakley on Wednesday night tried to erase fears that she's destined for a repeat of her 2010 U.S. Senate loss to Scott Brown while her opponents attempted to put a chink in the armor of the frontrunner and make the case that they are the best alternative to face likely GOP nominee Charlie Baker.

In one of their last chances to confront Coakley directly, both Treasurer Steve Grossman and former health care administrator Don Berwick challenged Coakley's record and leadership style, with Berwick emerging as the fiery aggressor in a televised, primetime debate. Grossman also unleashed a new line of attack on Coakley, criticizing her 10-year regional economic develop plan as a "fake plan."

"Let's be clear, Scott Brown was beatable...," Berwick charged, given the chance to question one of his rivals. "After a year on the trail, all I've heard from you in general is boilerplate talking points."

Coakley, as she did during the party convention in June, calmly owned up to 2010 U.S. Senate race loss, saying she was "shaking hands" and had assembled a "ground game" that she was not able to during the shortened Senate special election. She also defended her vision for the Commonwealth as one that's about listening to people, pursuing early education and mental health care improvements and growing jobs in all corners of the state.


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"Thirty thousand people would have lost their homes without me," Coakley said, responding to the assertion that she lacks a certain "boldness" in her positions.

The three Democrats debated in the first and only prime time televised debate of the primary campaign on Wednesday at the studios of Channel 7 WHDH in downtown Boston. The debate, sponsored by a consortium that also includes the Boston Globe, WCVB, WBUR and Bloomberg radio, was moderated by 7News's Andy Hiller and WCVB political reporter Janet Wu.

Coakley leads Grossman and Berwick by double-digit margins in recent polling on the race. She was also the only candidate who correctly named rookie Jimmy Garroppolo as the Patriots new backup quarterback to Tom Brady.

"I thought Martha Coakley walked in the front runner to the debate tonight. She walked out the front runner. Neither Grossman nor Berwick did any damage to her and with less than a week to go it's hard to see her not winning this race," said Mary Anne Marsh, a veteran political consultant with the Dewey Square Group.

Despite some pointed attacks directed at Coakley and her record as attorney general, Marsh said, "Too little, too late," suggesting Grossman needed a "gas tax moment" that never came, like the gaffe Coakley made in May on television when she guessed that the state's 24-cent gas tax was 10 cents.

Berwick, who trails in a distant third place in multiple polls, suggested that Coakley and Grossman are political insiders beholden to powerful special interests. He challenged both his Democratic opponents on their support for casinos, which he called job destroyers, and said only a radical simplification of the health care system, like his plan for a single-payer system, will reduce costs.

Grossman spent much of the debate touting his own record of sound fiscal management and diversity in hiring at the treasury, job creation in the private sector and a willingness to step out on controversial issues like guaranteed sick leave for employees.

After challenging Coakley to name three projects she would invest in that aren't already in the state's capital plan, Grossman ripped into the attorney general's new 10-year, $400 million regional economic development plan.

"I think it's a fake plan, Martha," Grossman said, adding, "It's not going to leave a footprint on the beach."

Coakley responded by arguing that it's important to listen to local leaders about their regional needs before committing funds, and after the debate said she was still waiting to see Grossman's plan to help cities and towns outside Greater Boston grow jobs. 

Coakley also parried familiar criticisms of her settlement agreement with Partners HealthCare to pave the way for the large hospital group's acquisition of new hospitals north and south of Boston, as well as her settlement with a lobbyist over an alleged illegal contract with Franciscan Hospital for Children in Brighton.

Coakley said she was able to secure the return of $100,000 for the hospital instead of pursuing a shaky lawsuit that would have netted, at most, $5,000 in penalties. But Grossman said he would have pressed for more considering the $370,000 the Brennan Group collected from the hospital.

"It creates a bad impression. It's the worst of what Beacon Hill is all about," Grossman said.

Coakley got her own knocks in, saying she found it interesting that Grossman would call for a Constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court's Citizen's United decision that unleashed a flood on money into politics, but would not disavow support from a super PAC in this race, which has been largely funded with a donation from his mother Shirley.

Democrats have been reluctant to criticize the record of Gov. Deval Patrick on the trail, but when pressed Wednesday both Coakley and Grossman said they would have handled the licensing of medical marijuana dispensaries differently, and Grossman said he disagreed with Patrick's decision to award a "no-bid" contract to IT vendor Optum to fix the troubled Health Connector website.

Berwick said he disagreed "profoundly" with Patrick's support of casinos, and said he would bring strong management experience to the Corner Office, but stopped short of directly impugning Patrick's management record.

Hiller, one of the two moderators, injected his own personality into the debate at times, perhaps most notably when he blustered, "Do you live in Disneyland or do I?" after all three said they had never used their political influence to get someone a job in government.

The three Democrats also said they opposed the death penalty for marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and have not been disappointed by the performance of President Barack Obama. However, when asked if Obama has done a good job, Coakley said, "That's a different question," before blaming an "intractable Congress."

On their weaknesses, Berwick said it was his "big heart," Grossman said he was too long-winded, and Coakley said coffee. All three also support moving forward with a possible bid for the 2024 summer Olympics in Boston.