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Kennedy, Romney less confrontational in final campaign debate

Sen. Edward Kennedy and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, met in debate Thursday night and staged a pallid battle of policy details, avoiding the dramatics of their encounter two nights earlier.

Questioned by a college student, Romney disavowed plans in House Republican candidates' Contract With America that would cut money available for student loans. He said the contract's approach was divisive.

Kennedy said the question was "whether the Republicans are going to keep their hands off the savings" to college students that have resulted from improvements in the federal loan program.

The senator answered a later question about what he could contribute in Washington by declaring that his record showed he was skilled at fashioning coalitions, especially behind education bills. He said he would try to do the same on health care legislation in the next Congress.

Romney said that he would be a senator who could "change with the times" and that his experience as a venture capitalist, working with small business, qualified him to serve in Washington.

Seeking to close a gap that Kennedy has opened in recent polls, Romney stressed a need for change from the policies his foe has supported in the Senate for 32 years. But he also said he would be independent from Republican policies, a position necessary in this basically Democratic state.

"I'm not going to Washington to toe the line,' the challenger said.

Kennedy, less confrontational than he was two nights earlier, stuck to his fundamental campaign themes, reciting details of education bills and other measures he had sponsored in Congress.

In Tuesday's debate, held beneath a painting of Daniel Webster at Faneuil Hall in Boston, it was reporters who questioned the two candidates.

Thursday night in the debate in an auditorium at Holyoke Community College, the questions were posed by members of the public. The Thursday panel largely steered clear of divisive issues like abortion, and the candidates avoided wrangling over matters like the accusations that each has leveled against the other in advertising campaigns.

The second and last face-to-face confrontation of the campaign came as three public-opinion polls showed Kennedy now in a strong position after being no better than even a month ago.

One of the polls, a telephone survey of 400 registered voters, showed Kennedy ahead by 52 percent to 38 percent.

The Boston Globe, one of the sponsors of this week's two debates, published a poll of 400 likely voters that found an even wider Kennedy lead, 56 percent to 36 percent.

The other sponsor of the two debates, The Boston Herald, published a survey of 369 registered voters showing that 38 percent said Kennedy won the debate on Tuesday, against only 15 percent for Romney.