In Massachusetts Senate debate, time for Gomez to come out swinging

Both Rep. Edward Markey and Gabriel Gomez need to break stereotypes in Wednesday's debate. But with Gomez behind, he has more work to do to win the Massachusetts Senate seat.

Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Ed Markey (l.) and Republican Gabriel Gomez will face each other in a debate Wednesday night. They are candidates for US Senate in the June special election being held to fill the seat vacated when John Kerry was appointed as secretary of State.

As the candidates in the special election to fill John Kerry’s Senate seat in Massachusetts go head-to-head in their first televised debate Wednesday night, both will be looking to keep the reputations they’ve developed in their early weeks on the campaign trail from fossilizing in voters’ minds.

For Rep. Edward Markey, a stiff and slightly awkward 18-term congressman, that will mean showing that he’s not just a stock character Massachusetts Democrat who expects to sweep to victory on the strength of the party’s massive demographic advantage. Instead, he’ll try to prove to voters that he wants this seat, and perhaps more importantly, that he’s earned it.

On the other hand, for Republican Gabriel Gomez, a charming businessman and former Navy SEAL but political novice, the goal will be to make himself look senatorial: informed, articulate, and confrontation-ready.

And there’s an added challenge. The two men will have to do all this on a sunny June evening – hardly prime political season in Massachusetts – with home games by both the Red Sox and the Bruins only a channel flip away. 

Indeed, both candidates will spend tonight not only making the case for their candidacies, but for the importance of the election itself, says Spencer Kimball, a campaign consultant who also teaches in the communication studies department at Emerson College in Boston.

“People are confused about what’s at issue here, and that works in Markey’s favor because you don’t have many Democrats looking to jump ship,” he says. “But this debate gives Gomez the opportunity to make the case to independent voters that he’s a viable candidate, and that if they want to know more, they should keep tuning in.”

Hooking in independent voters has been a major strategy so far for Mr. Gomez, who has spent the early days of the race pounding the pavement across the state, racking up scores of visits to diners, factories, and small businesses.

That’s made him more visible, but it’s also revealed his political inexperience. In an NPR interview two weeks ago, for instance, he referred to Representative Markey as “pond scum” for a negative campaign ad.  

Markey, meanwhile, has run a quieter campaign. Shuttling back and forth between congressional duties in Washington and the campaign in Massachusetts, the veteran Democrat has focused most of his electoral energy on fundraisers and private meetings with community leaders.

Last week, he brought first lady Michelle Obama to the state for a glitzy lunchtime fundraiser that added more than $700,000 to his coffers and also appeared at events beside Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts and singer Carole King. Next week President Obama will campaign for the congressman in Boston.

“He doesn’t want to stir the hornet’s nest of independents,” says Ray La Raja, an political scientist at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. “He doesn’t want to put himself in a position where he might open his mouth and give Gomez an unforced error.”

Those diverging strategies have left both campaigns open to easy attacks in the runup to the debate.  

In a new TV ad released Tuesday, Markey blasted Gomez for trying to spin himself as “a new kind of Republican” in this blue state, arguing he’s been deliberately opaque about his positions on hot-button issues like Social Security, gun control, and reproductive rights.

Indeed, since Day 1, Gomez has wobbled along a razor-thin line between showing his respect for the national GOP and painting himself as an outside-the-beltway moderate who isn’t beholden to narrow party interests. That’s meant campaigning with erstwhile maverick Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona one day, while accepting the fundraising efforts of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky the next.

Meanwhile, he hopes to show voters that Markey’s 36 years in Washington have left him out of touch with the state’s needs. The campaign has complained that the congressman spends most of his time living in his house in the D.C. suburb of Chevy Chase, Md., and released an ad Wednesday showing Markey stumbling through an answer to a reporter’s question about why his tax rate is so low.

The polls have consistently put Markey up in the race, with a June 2 survey from the New England College giving him a 12 point advantage. Despite the Democrat’s lead, however, the Cook Political Report announced last week that it had moved its prediction for the race from “leaning Democrat” to “toss up” because of the volatility of special election turnout.

The latest NEC poll confirms that economic issues loom large for likely voters, with unemployment, the federal deficit, and holding down taxes rated as their three top concerns.

Those are issues on which Gomez can come out swinging. 

"He'll want to go after Markey and really put him on the defensive," says Professor La Raja of the University of Massachusetts. "He doesn't have much time left in this election – this is the moment to start taking some risks." 

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