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Keller @ Large: What To Watch For In Markey-Kennedy Debate

BOSTON (CBS) - Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey and Rep. Joe Kennedy will debate Tuesday at 7 p.m. on WBZ-TV. Political analyst Jon Keller will moderate. 

Here's what Jon says you should watch for:

Popcorn? Check.

Cold beverages? Check.

Twitter handle set? #wbzdebate, check.

You're ready for Tuesday night's climactic Massachusetts Senate Democratic primary showdown between incumbent Sen. Ed Markey and challenger Rep. Joe Kennedy. But what are you likely to see?

For starters, look for both candidates to be on offense.

Recent polling pegs the race as a tossup, as both men have done a good job of consolidating their core support. But with all the unexpected complications of the pandemic – no large rallies, no flesh-pressing (beyond some awkward elbow-bumping), and little opportunity to go door-to-door without scaring the daylights out of people – it seems likely there is a decisive pool of voters who haven't been reached and may just now be starting to focus on the race.

At this moment of high anxiety and despair with the status quo, neither candidate can afford to be on the defensive tonight as their opponent shreds their record.

Kennedy has upped the ante in the past week with a web ad mocking Markey's regular-guy-from-Malden TV spots and accusing him of supporting telecommunications deregulation policies that cost local blue-collar jobs. And Markey had to awkwardly apologize for his handling of a long-ago meeting with the family of slain Easton resident DJ Henry, a black man killed by police under very questionable circumstances.

Kennedy will surely press those lines of attack. And I fully expect Markey, who has only sporadically counterattacked in previous debates after coming on strong in the first one back in February, to bark back hard.

A recent Markey web ad mocking Kennedy for downplaying the political prospects of Medicare for All is an example of how the incumbent wants to portray his much-younger rival – as a callow kid who lacks the political chops to get anything done. Markey has spent more time than he wanted to fending off Kennedy's argument that it's time for a change, and his symbolic efforts to deflect the charge of being out of touch – shooting hoops in his Nikes, and boasting of his large Twitter following – have seemed anemic. Tonight, look for him to tout his backing by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and his support from remnants of the Bernie Sanders base as more tangible signs of hipness, while citing Kennedy's support from trade unions as a sign that his opponent is the one beholden to old ways of doing business.

You never know what candidates will do in a live TV debate until they do it, although with just one last debate remaining after tonight, the time to step up is now. But I can promise you one thing – tonight's format won't get in their way.

There will be no formal opening or closing statements. Each candidate will be given one minute to respond to the same question, drawn from a list that includes submissions from voters. After they've each had their turn, it's showtime, open periods of debate in which they can question one another, refer back to previous remarks, move into other topics, pretty much anything they want as long as it's coherent, relevant and orderly.

These will continue until the exchange is played out; then we move on to another question. There are just three inviolable rules: no filibustering, no talking over one another, and total obedience to the moderator's directions.

Otherwise, they might enter my cocoon of horror. Wisely, no one has ever risked it.

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