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Coakley's free pass: not as dumb as it seemed?

If you followed today's coverage of last night's debate between the would-be Democratic successors to Ted Kennedy, you're well acquainted with the following theme: frontrunner Martha Coakley remained above the fray while Mike Capuano and Steve Pagliuca duked it out--and as a result, Coakley's going to waltz into the general election. Here, for example, is the post-debate analysis of the Globe's Derrick Jackson:

Martha Coakley will be the state’s next US senator. Michael Capuano handed her the keys to the late Ted Kennedy’s office by getting caught up in one last dumb shouting match with the sure loser in the race, Stephen Pagliuca. One can only imagine the smile inside Coakley’s head as Capuano and Pagliuca descended into a banter so banal that Pagliuca tried to nail Capuano as the Sarah Palin of the Democratic Party.

All Coakley had to do was sit there, the only woman in the race, with the endorsements of EMILY’s List, the National Women’s Political Caucus, and the Feminist Majority. Can you imagine, she must have thought, that these two guys think they are going to protect a woman’s right to choose more than me? She did not interfere in the banter. It was a frontrunner’s dream - an easy night of little substance asked and none offered.

But wait: according to my Phoenix colleague David Bernstein, Capuano's internal polling has him about seven points behind Coakley, with Coakley's support dropping. If that's correct, does Jackson's interpretation--which jibes with Globe reporter Brian Mooney's, among others--still make sense?

Not so much. Instead, the aforementioned internals make Capuano's decision not to directly attack Coakley look pretty savvy. After all, if Capuano had aggressively targeted Coakley, that could easily have been spun as the Angry Guy from Somerville bullying the only woman in the race. And that, in turn, could have made ambivalent female voters more likely to support Coakley's candidacy--particularly if, like Jackson's colleague Joan Vennochi, they already think Coakley is getting a raw deal from Massachusetts' male political establishment.  (I'm skeptical of the latter storyline, since so many of Capuano's male endorsers are also his colleagues in the House. But I digress.)

The caveat here is that, according to Bernstein, Coakley's own internals show her crusing to an easy win. If that's the case, then maybe Capuano goofed as badly as Derrick Jackson suggests. But if Capuano's internals are more accurate, mixing it up with Pagliuca instead of Coakley was hardly the bad move it's been made out to be.

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