By Jon Keller

BOSTON (CBS) – Back in mid-February, when the world was young, Senator Ed Markey and his primary challenger Rep. Joe Kennedy met in their first debate at WGBH. The 73-year-old Markey came out with Red Bull energy, took the fight to the much younger man, and had Kennedy on his heels repeatedly.

On Monday night, in their second televised debate, the roles were dramatically reversed.

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Kennedy was on the attack from the start, bluntly casting Markey as past his sell-by date: “We need stronger leadership in the Senate, this moment requires stronger presence than Sen. Markey has delivered… This moment calls on us to do something different.”

Moments later: “I do not believe we can take on the challenges with the same folks who have been there for the last 50 years.”

And there was this blistering sequence responding to Markey’s repeated citations of legislation he’s sponsored over five decades in Congress: “Before COVID-19 arrived we had 500,000 people homeless, 40 million going hungry…. I don’t think you can confront those challenges and say we’ve done enough…. There’s far more to this than the votes you cast and the bills you filed.”

Rep. Joe Kennedy and Sen. Ed Markey (Image credit Western Mass News)

Inexplicably, Markey never pushed back. His campaign has been complaining lately about Kennedy going negative, but apparently decided to look the other way when he did it right to the incumbent’s face.

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It isn’t that Markey has no accomplishments to boast of; he does, and he did. But his demeanor often bordered on sullen, and his reflexes – so impressively sharp in the first debate – were sluggish tonight.

In an exchange over the role of race in health disparities, Kennedy name-checked two popular figures among Democratic activists, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley as allies in his push for data transparency. Markey called the battle for healthcare justice “an FDR moment,” one of several instances where his dated references underscored the generational differences Kennedy would prefer voters focus on.

It took Markey 33 of the debate’s 60 minutes to mention his hippest endorsement, from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And even when he mentioned his own endorsement of Sen. Warren to be Joe Biden’s running-mate, he never mentioned that Warren has, in fact, endorsed him.

Markey couldn’t catch a break all night, with both the moderator and one of the panelists accidentally referring to his opponent as “Senator Kennedy.” And one panelist kept hammering on perhaps Markey’s least-favorite subject, the longstanding perception that he’s a creature of Washington who rarely shows his face here. “We don’t see you in Massachusetts between elections,” she said. When Markey denied that, she demanded he release his travel records to prove it; Markey said he’d “work with you” on that.

It was teed up perfectly for Kennedy, who claimed Western Massachusetts officials “told me they’ve seen me more than you. I’ve been here twice. I don’t think we can afford absent leadership.”

There’s another televised debate this month, and the two men will meet just 20 days before the September 1 primary in the WBZ studios on August 11 with yours truly moderating.

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Look for Markey to be much more aggressive and combative by then. There’s nowhere to go but up.

Jon Keller