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Harshbarger, Celluci Spar As Loudly as Supporters

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By Frank Dabek

Perhaps it was the throngs of screaming protesters which set the tone for the evening. Their chants and jeers besieged Faneuil Hall and foreshadowed the level of debate that was about to take place inside. Even if the final debate between gubernatorial candidates Scott Harshbarger and Paul Cellucci consisted of little more than the trading of sound bites it was interesting to me as a media event on a grand scale.

The press entrance was a fragile part in the sea of blue, white and red campaign signs. Homemade placards entreated: "witches have rights too." One was less magnanimous and replaced the a' in Paul Cellucci with a swastika. Union Ironworkers showed up in force to chant for Harshbarger; Cellucci supporters seemed exiled to the rear. Megaphones were not in short supply.

Inside the hall, a strict peace was enforced. Cellular phone-toting consortium' staff directed me and a fellow reporter to the closed circuit viewing room on the fourth floor reserved for non-consortia media where live feeds of the debate were sold to rival television stations. Entreaties to enter the empty upper gallery were rebuffed and we were even told through which window it was permissible to watch the crowds outside the hall. So much for free public debate.

Idealism, or perhaps persistence, prevailed in the end, however, and we were admitted to the upper gallery just before the debate started and just in time to see three local news stations filming live spots simultaneously.

The debate itself was something of an anti-climax. The candidates certainly kept the discourse lively, if not particularly civil. Highlights, if they can be called that, included Harshbarger waving a scrap of paper while proclaiming, "Paul Cellucci's pledges aren't worth the paper they are written on." Cellucci did his own grandstanding, berating "Scott" to "take the no new taxes pledge."

Both candidates abused the format of the debate by running over the time allotted to them and interrupting each other. The Lincoln-Douglas portion of the debate was particularly chaotic. During this portion of the debate, the weary moderator threw up his hands and told the candidates "this is your forum." Needless to say, only a few questions managed to find their way into what became an out and out verbal fistfight.

Perhaps the most memorable one-liner, and one that typified the evening, capped a particularly violent exchange: "You can't handle the truth," Cellucci told his opponent. Cellucci may not be Jack Nicholson, but both candidates played the role of actors throughout the night, courting the television cameras staked about the room.

The issues covered in the debate ranged far and wide, from the negative tone of the campaign, to education, to fiscal discipline, to education, to fiscal discipline, thanks to the single-minded focus of both candidates.

Harshbarger was particularly forceful in bringing his favorite issue as a topic of debate. Immediately after a lengthy discussion on education, Harshbarger used one of his rare opportunities to ask a question to query Cellucci about nothing other than his record on education.

Before condemning the debate as nothing more than a media circus, I should acknowledge that an audience, no doubt carefully chosen by the two campaigns, was present.

They added a bit of honest humanity to the debate, cheering for their candidates and jeering at his opponent. The groups were carefully segregated, as if the venom of the exchange on stage would spill over into physical conflicts within the audience. Harshbarger's supporters were seated on the floor of the hall while Cellucci's backers were arranged around the edges of the hall.

The effect of the audience would have been more complete if the candidates had addressed something besides the television cameras and each other, however. After the debate, the two candidates were surrounded by rows of reporters three deep. Even former Senator John Kerry had to wait his turn to talk to Harshbarger.

A few of the supporters remained outside the hall after the debate ended. I asked one of the union workers why he was supporting Harshbarger. "Harshbarger is for labor" he told me.

Labor, like a multitude of other issues, was not referenced once during the "brawl at Faneuil Hall" - it was lost amid the search for sound bites and the rush of a modern election.