BOSTON (CBS) - The first TV debate in any campaign is an important event. Research repeatedly shows that busy voters often turn to debates for help in making up their minds. And you know the old saying: you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
So Wednesday night's first meeting between Annissa Essaibi George and Michelle Wu is a key moment in the Boston mayoral race. As you sit down to watch it on WBZ-TV and CBSN Boston at 7 p.m (or listen on WBZ NewsRadio 1030 if you're in the car or out walking the dog), consider these potential keys to the outcome for each candidate:
• The new WBUR/Dorchester Reporter/Boston Foundation/MassINC poll showing Wu leading by more than a two-to-one margin is certainly daunting news for the Essaibi George campaign, but they knew she was the underdog anyway. Those numbers don't change job one for Essaibi George tonight - make a strongly positive impression on the 34% of voters the polls finds have never heard of her or haven't yet formed an opinion. If she can turn around some of the 25% who voice an unfavorable view of her – perhaps by refuting the notion circulated by her critics that she's some kind of right-wing reactionary figure – all the better.
• On the flip side, Essaibi George has to try to let some of the air out of the lofty public view of her opponent. Wu scores a 61% favorable rating in the poll, 24 points better than Essaibi George, and the positive view of her cuts across all demographic groups. Interestingly, black and Latino voters are slightly less impressed, giving Wu 54% approval ratings. Beyond her base among older, white residents, these are the voters who Essaibi George needs to compete for more aggressively. Can she find a way to do it tonight without coming off too harshly? Complicating that task: studies show female candidates are often judged more negatively than male candidates for "going negative," a sexist double standard for sure, but a political reality.
• The conventional wisdom is that a frontrunner should always play it safe in a high-profile debate, play rope-a-dope, don't help create a "moment" that might change the arc of the race. All that makes sense for Wu. But even this latest poll shows a fifth to a quarter of the voters remain undecided. Wu has branded herself as an agent of sweeping reform, not a cautious establishment figure content to "nibble around the edges" of change. Playing it super safe and simply waving off Essaibi George's inevitable provocations doesn't mesh with that image. Wu has a calm demeanor that contrasts somewhat with Essaibi George's visible passion, but she is no cipher or pushover. Look for her to make that clear tonight.
• The core of Essaibi George's critique of Wu is that she offers big, costly "pie in the sky" ideas that aren't practical, while Essaibi George posits herself as more of a workhorse than show horse. Tonight is a chance for Wu to stick a fork in that spin by being candid with voters about the difficulty of delivering on some of her goals (such as rent stabilization and free MBTA service), and more specific than she normally is about how her plans will work. It doesn't need to be a one-hour wonk fest. She knows the charge is coming. A concise, compelling answer that addresses the criticism head on could do the trick.
One thing is for sure: if you sink an hour into watching or listening to tonight's debate, you will come away with a better idea of who these two candidates are and how they might lead Boston through a crucial time. Join us, 7pm on WBZ-TV and CBSN Boston.
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