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Ground Game

When Democratic candidates for governor debate, they may take their gloves off

Somerville activist and author Bob Massie (left) and former Deval Patrick administration official Jay Gonzalez (right) in April.
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/File
Somerville activist and author Bob Massie (left) and former Deval Patrick administration official Jay Gonzalez (right) in April.

And then there were two.

For the duo of Democrats challenging Charlie Baker, Thursday afternoon’s debate will mark the first time they could be rewarded for their zingers against each other — instead of whoever had the best zinger against the GOP governor.

When former Deval Patrick administration official Jay Gonzalez and environmental activist and author Bob Massie face off at the 3 p.m. debate sponsored by The Boston Globe, WBUR, and the McCormack Graduate School at UMass Boston, it will be the first high-profile debate since a third Democratic candidate, former Newton mayor Setti Warren, dropped out the race.

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As the trio appeared at forums all over the Commonwealth this spring, each Democrat had a careful rhetorical dance of avoiding aggression toward his opponents. That’s because, in a three-person race, attacking one opponent comes with the risk of shifting support to the other candidates who stayed positive.

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Now, however, the contest is a two-person, zero-sum game: Tearing down an opponent or putting your only opponent on the defensive can be good for the attacker.

And for Gonzalez and Massie, the stakes have never been higher.

In just 18 days, the pair will head to the state Democratic convention in Worcester. Before Warren dropped out three weeks ago, the strategy for the candidates was clear: Focus on getting the 15 percent convention vote to qualify on the ballot. Now that there are just two candidates, the focus is on getting at least a majority, entitling the winner to the party’s official endorsement.

In some races, getting the party’s endorsement at the convention is a nice feather in the cap and a show of organizational force. In this Democratic race for governor, however, it could decide the contest. That’s because, since the race for governor kicked off last year, the polls have consistently shown three things:

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1. Few voters say they know who the Democratic candidates are.

2. Very few voters expect either of them to defeat Baker.

3. There is no front-runner in the Democratic primary.

Things could change dramatically in the next few weeks. By default, the convention could anoint a front-runner — hence the importance of this live debate, which will be held at UMass Boston, aired on WBUR, and livestreamed on BostonGlobe.com.

But for such an anointing to occur, one candidate will need a breakout performance.

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The goal for each candidate is to signal to Democratic delegates why he is the strongest candidate to take on Baker, or to make the argument that at least he will be better than the other guy.

And every day the Democratic primary race is muddled without a clear front-runner, the more of a headstart Baker gets for the general election.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: pages.email.bostonglobe.com/
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