Massachusetts Senate race Debate 2: Gomez plays the 'independent' card (+video)

Republican Gabriel Gomez, underdog in the Massachusetts special election for a US Senate seat, sought during Tuesday's debate to present himself as a fierce independent. Front-runner and US Rep. Edward Markey dove into his personal backstory to highlight his non-Washington side.

By , Correspondent

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    The second Massachusetts Senate race debate between Democratic Congressman Edward Markey, right, and Republican Gabriel Gomez Tuesday night, in the WBGY TV studio in Springfield, Mass.
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As the two candidates for John Kerry’s former Senate seat in Massachusetts blazed across nearly a dozen subjects in their second debate Tuesday night, a single question seemed to hover just outside the frame: What style of senator would each man be?

On the Republican side, businessman Gabriel Gomez repeatedly sought to frame himself as a fiercely independent thinker, ready to buck his own party on issues such as gun control, gay marriage, and equal pay.

Before a small audience in the WBGY TV studio in the western Massachusetts city of Springfield, he called himself a “green Republican,” said he would “talk across the aisle” to try to pass legislation on expanded background checks for gun owners, and promised a yes vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act.

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For longtime congressman Edward Markey (D), on the other hand, the debate was about giving his methodically delivered platform points a human face.

“I’m the first person in my family to ever go to college,” he told the audience, explaining that he drove an ice cream truck to pay his own way through school.

With public interest in the race low statewide and with recent polls showing Mr. Markey’s advantage in the race in the high single digits, both candidates scrambled to keep the criticisms against them from calcifying as the race marches into its final two weeks.

“These debates aren’t game-changers, but they help with messaging,” says Spencer Kimball, a campaign consultant who also teaches in the communication studies department at Emerson College in Boston. Mr. Gomez in particular, he says, “has tightened up his message to voters” since his fresh-faced arrival onto the political scene in the primary campaign earlier this year.

Indeed, Gomez’s message was easy to identify Tuesday night. He spoke several times of placing “people above party and politics” and putting fresh legs on the field in Washington D.C. He needled Markey repeatedly for his 37 years in Congress, noting that when the congressman was first elected in 1976, Gerald Ford was president and Gomez himself was an 11-year-old playing Little League.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he said, repeating a favorite line, “but you are Washington, D.C.”

As the debate skimmed across gun control, taxes, national security, and equal pay, Gomez frequently refused to tie himself to a specific promise or position, instead arguing that he would consider each issue as it came before him – regardless of the GOP line.

When asked if he would consider ending the mortgage deduction received by homeowners as part of a tax code reform, Gomez said he didn’t think so, but he wasn’t sure. Were he to serve in the Senate, “I’m for putting everything on the table and discussing it,” he said.

Markey, on the other hand, continued his analytical assault on Gomez’s arguments and had a firm line on nearly every subject presented. He opposes the Keystone XL pipeline, supports an assault weapons ban, and believes that election spending by corporations and unions should be capped.

In the past, Mr. Kimball notes, Markey has been accused of coming up strong on facts but being weak on style. While Gomez frequently emphasizes his ethnic background ­– his parents are Colombian immigrants – and says he’s “lived the American dream,” Markey has mostly hewed close to political issues in his stump speeches and press conferences.

Tuesday night, however, he made rare mention of his own history. Talking about his support for closing the gender gap in pay, he discussed how his mother was prevented from going to college by his grandmother’s death, which forced her to stay home to help raise her younger sisters. 

“Back then the social safety net was one girl stays home [to care for the family],” he said. “We can do a lot better for women in our country.”

Neither candidate made any notable swerves from their talking points during the hour-long debate, though both appeared slightly taken off guard at a question about whether marijuana should be legalized nationwide (Massachusetts votes approved a measure last year to legalize its use for medicinal purposes). 

“We have to ensure we can police it,” Markey said, “and that it’s only used for medicinal purposes. That’s the role I think marijuana should play.”

The debate was the second of three between the two candidates, and the only one to take place outside of the Boston metropolitan area. Although it was broadcast on local television in western Massachusetts and streamed online, it was not carried on any Boston-area networks. The two candidates meet for a last debate June 18.

A flurry of polls released this week ahead of the debate mostly showed Markey leading the race by high single- or low double-digit margin – slightly down from earlier polling. Only a poll by the Republican-leaning McLaughlin & Associates showed the race any closer, placing the two candidates in a “statistical dead heat,” with 45 percent in favor of Markey and 44 percent in favor of Gomez. 

Those results will likely make Markey nervous entering the final weeks of the campaign, says Peter Ubertaccio, chairman of the political science and international studies department at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., because they show that Gomez could be building momentum. 

“That’s worrisome to the Democrat because a Democrat running a statewide race here has all the advantages of incumbency even when they’re not an incumbent,” he says, in reference to Massachusetts' strongly blue tint.  

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