Let’s be real: Maura Healey would have to be videotaped setting fire to a Dunkin’ Donuts in a Yankees hat, Kyrie Irving jersey and Montreal Canadiens sweatpants to blow her massive lead in the governor’s race.

Even that might not do it because Geoff Diehl can’t muster the dough for a TV ad campaign. This is like taking the field in an NFL game without pads or cleats. And even if Diehl had any money, his decision to embrace the uber-toxic Trump brand and its ridiculous lies about January 6 and the election process is suicidal.

But this depressing litany of non-competitiveness doesn’t make for especially interesting analysis. So instead, let’s play pretend – that an adequately-funded Diehl had shunned the Trump folly and managed to produce a legitimate challenge instead of stale right-wing B.O.

We got a whiff of what that might have smelled like during last week’s gubernatorial debate, which the ratings show was watched by family, friends and a handful of strangers who passed away in their Barcaloungers earlier in the day watching Rachael Ray.

The meager audience and a format that strangled detailed debate in its crib suited the Healey campaign’s year-long strategy of running out the clock just fine. In the pitifully-short time allotted to housing affordability, which is arguably the most important issue facing the state, Diehl at least offered a few tangible thoughts – “expanding transportation corridors like the East-West rail, South Coast rail, to open up other areas of the state where people can build affordable housing.” He noted that soaring mortgage rates will impede home ownership and construction, and tied Healey’s ambitious environmental goals to further stagnation. “By 2030, no fossil fuels? No possible way, we’re gonna go bankrupt,” Diehl said.

Healey responded with pablum. “We need housing stock…at various income levels…,” she said, without offering any detail on how she’d do that, and “drive down the cost of transportation and fix our transportation system,” again with no further explanation. On energy, she wants to “create a climate corridor” (?), and laughably claimed she was “not familiar with all aspects of the Green New Deal.”

In a metaverse where Republican critiques of the Democratic majority as reckless spenders indifferent to government waste and corruption were rooted in any sort of trust or credibility, Diehl might have left the debate with plenty to work with. Throughout, Healey repeatedly promised “investing” without establishing spending priorities. When Diehl charged her, not without reason, with being “unwilling to take on political corruption within your own party,” she ignored him and wasn’t prodded to respond.

Amid the usual flatulent right-wing nostrums about the evils of vaccine mandates and sex education, Diehl actually offered the occasional bright idea, like expanding opioid treatment “out into the suburbs” to make it more accessible to the addicted and dilute service concentration in inner cities. Creative, sit-up-and-take-notice idea count from the frontrunner: zero.

You’ll need a high-end, virtual reality headset to envision a believable scenario for a Diehl victory. But here’s a question for Healey’s apparently-smug strategists to consider: as she claims her “mandate” on election night, what can they plausibly claim it’s for?

Jon Keller has been reporting and commenting on local politics since 1978. A graduate of Brandeis University, he worked in radio as a producer and talk-show host before moving into print journalism at The Tab newspapers and the Boston Phoenix. Freelance credits include the Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, Boston Magazine, the New Republic and the Washington Post. Since 1991 his "Keller At Large" commentaries and interviews have been a fixture on Boston TV, first on WLVI-TV and, since 2005, on WBZ-TV. He is a 12-time Emmy Award winner for political reporting and commentary. He began his Massterlist column in March 2020.