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After uncertainty, Democrats commit to debates in most statewide races

Geoff Diehl and Maura Healey will face off in the general election for Massachusetts governor in November.Matthew Lee

After weeks of questions and criticism, most Democratic candidates in competitive races for statewide office have now set debates with their Republican opponents.

Debates have been scheduled between the major-party candidates in contests for governor, attorney general, and auditor, and campaigns are hoping to arrange one in the lieutenant governor race, aides said this week. A number of those faceoffs were added to the calendar just in the past few days, after Democratic front-runners faced criticism for avoiding the events with their Republican opponents.

Asked during a Sept. 12 radio interview whether she would debate her Republican opponent, Democratic attorney general candidate Andrea Campbell said, “We’ll see.” On Wednesday, organizers announced that Campbell will tape a debate with Republican Jay McMahon on WBZ in late October. Democratic gubernatorial front-runner Maura Healey, who had previously committed to one debate with Republican opponent Geoff Diehl, will also face him in a televised conversation on Oct. 12, the campaigns said this week. And the major-party candidates for auditor, Democrat Diana DiZoglio and Republican Anthony Amore, will appear together on WBZ on Oct. 16. That comes after DiZoglio initially said she would debate Amore only if third-party candidates were included, a move critics saw as an excuse for dodging a one-on-one exchange.

Nothing has been scheduled in the contest for secretary of state between incumbent Democrat William F. Galvin and Republican Rayla Campbell. State Treasurer Deborah B. Goldberg, a Democrat, faces no Republican opponent in her reelection bid.

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Political debates are rare moments when candidates are forced to answer tough questions, making them important opportunities to cut through gauzy campaign rhetoric and political spin. Robust policy conversations are crucial for a healthy democracy, and advocates say candidates owe voters the chance to hear them pressed on their positions in real time.

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“The value of debating in a democracy shouldn’t be understated. It’s a proven part of the process that helps voters become informed,” said Geoff Foster, executive of the good government group Common Cause Massachusetts. “There’s always a benefit to voters and the public when more candidates are on record for their positions.”

That the debate schedule remained anemic for so long is a reflection of Massachusetts’ entrenched politics. Three weeks before early voting begins, polls show that Democratic candidates have comfortable leads over their Republican opponents in statewide races. Campaign strategists say that for front-runners, there is little upside — and major risk — in televised debates with opponents. Appearing with an adversary gives that rival an opportunity to gain ground with voters. It also presents a high-profile platform for lobbing attacks.

“If there’s a lack of a competitive race, it doesn’t behoove the candidate who is in the lead to debate,” said Tatishe Nteta, director of the UMass poll. “Strategically, it doesn’t really make sense.”

Nationally, the tradition of televised debates appears to be fading somewhat amid an increasingly polarized political atmosphere. Experts say ratings for debates have declined over time, and that many of those who do still watch debates are highly engaged voters who have already decided who they’ll vote for, making the forums less essential for candidates.

Some analysts question how many viewers will even tune in for debates in down-ballot races, particularly contests that appear all but decided. A more hands-on campaign style would better serve candidates this year, they argued.

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“People are moving away from debates,” said Jacquetta Van Zandt, a Democratic political strategist who is not working on any statewide races this fall. “They no longer care about you going head to head. People want to hear you at their doors. They want to see you.”


Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.