Reilly comes out swinging ...

... and promptly punches himself to the canvas, a seldom-seen spectacle in politics or boxing.

The bell had hardly sounded in last night's gubernatorial debate at Harvard and the first question to the three Democratic candidates was about cutting taxes. Tom Reilly, inexplicably sensing this was the opportune moment, accused Chris Gabrieli of leaking a "confidential" report on erstwhile Reilly running mate Marie St. Fleur's tax woes.

Before Reilly even finished his allegation, moderator Jeanne Shaheen interrupted in an attempt to bring Reilly back to the question at hand, followed by Deval Patrick asking, are we still talking about taxes? The robust applause to follow surely chilled even the most indefatigable of Reilly's supporters.

For those of us who've watched too many debates that never lived up to their promise, this one more than delivered. Its opening round may well be the only thing anyone remembers of the 2006 gubernatorial debates, at least those we've seen so far. I was reminded of the moment in a 1980 presidential debate when Ronald Reagan asked voters, are you better off now than you were four years ago? As soon as I heard the question, I knew Reagan would beat Jimmy Carter. All that remained was the formality of an actual vote.

Gabrieli did not deny the allegation during the debate, but did so afterwards, as shown in coverage by Channel 5 and the Boston Globe. Gabrieli will probably siphon away more of Reilly's waning support than will Patrick, given the bad blood between Patrick and Reilly and Gabrieli coming closer to Reilly on trimming taxes while the state enjoys a $1 billion surplus.

As for Reilly's allegation against Gabrieli, how is a report on tax delinquency by a member of the Legislature and potential lieutenant governor "confidential" anyway? Heck, I'm not the attorney general, but it sure sounds like a public record to me (or one that soon ought to be).

The race remains Patrick's to lose, as I wrote two months ago, which is not the same as saying Patrick can't be beaten. From the perspective of this viewer, Patrick was only a bead of perspiration or two from a case of flop sweat, which did little to help Richard Nixon in 1960 while debating the candidate for whom the JFK school was later named.

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