Although the two candidates running for John Kerry’s open Senate seat in Massachusetts spent much of their first debate Wednesday night extolling the virtues of bipartisan compromise, the two found little common ground themselves in either substance or style.
For an hour on the stage of WBZ-TV in Boston, Republican Gabriel Gomez’s punchy one-liners tangled with Democrat Edward Markey’s slowly-wound policy pitches as the two clashed over abortion, intervention in Syria, and the future of American health care.
In an off-year special election campaign that so far has been told largely in prescripted stump speeches and press conferences, the debate offered a rare glimpse into how the two men have thought through many of the most difficult political issues facing their campaigns.
That was especially important for Mr. Gomez, a politically untested businessman and former Navy SEAL, who has spent much of his time on the campaign trail just trying to introduce himself to voters.
“He needed to demonstrate that he belonged on that stage as a candidate for US Senate, and he certainly did that,” says Peter Ubertaccio, chair of the political science and international studies department at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass.
Gomez commandingly explained his views on the flaws in the president’s health-care legislation, including what he called the “egregious” tax placed on manufacturers of medical devices – an industry that employs nearly 25,000 people in Massachusetts.
He said that the US has “taken too long to do anything in Syria” and bluntly called for the resignation of Attorney General Eric Holder. And he reiterated his call for immigration reform, pledging to turn the architects of the Senate’s immigration package, the so-called “gang of eight,” into a “gang of nine.”
“I have a unique perspective on this – my parents immigrated here [from Colombia] the year before I was born. I learned English in school. I grew up in a migrant valley,” he said.
Representative Markey was polite but firm in his rebuttals. “Look, we’ve been waiting on Republicans to come over on immigration reform for a generation,” he told his opponent. “I’ve been working on this issue … for years, and finally you have a small number of Republicans coming over to help us. But this has been a Democratic issue over the years.”
Gomez’s political inexperience came into play in the debate as well, particularly during a terse confrontation over the issue of abortion.
Asked whether he supported a 24-hour wait period for women who chose to have an abortion before the procedure could be performed, Gomez at first faltered.
After a long pause he said, “Abortion is an issue that reasonable people can disagree [about], we just shouldn’t disagree about it.” He went on to say that he was “personally pro-life” and that “asking somebody to wait 24 hours before they can go have an abortion is not asking a lot.”
Markey, on the other hand, did not mince his words.
‘‘I think the decision should be between the woman and her physician. That’s it,” he said. “The woman makes the decision, not some law that’s imposed by politicians.”
Markey answered other questions with similar gravity, using specifics from his 18 terms in Congress to fend off Gomez’s challenges that he’d been dead weight in the House.
Responding to Gomez’s contention that he hadn’t had a single bill passed into law in the past two decades, Markey said coolly, “Mr. Gomez continues to misunderstand the way the legislative process works.”
But the debate also had its more scripted tropes, as well as its own endlessly repeated stock phrases.
Gomez opened the debate by welcoming Markey back to Boston “after 37 years in Washington D.C.” Then he repeatedly went after the Democrat for using “slick lawyerly explanations” to explain hard issues and “putting partisan politics over people.”
Markey, for his part, made much of Gomez’s “old, stale ideas” as a Republican and repeatedly told viewers that Massachusetts was a state of “leaders, not laggards.”
Gomez, normally loose and energetic, sometimes seemed stiff, as though on the verge of forgetting a memorized line. And at least once, he did exactly that.
In Syria “we have a great opportunity here make sure we align ourselves with the right terrorist group,” he said, before quickly papering over his mistake, “or the right rebel group.”
Mostly, though, the two were well-balanced debaters, Mr. Ubertaccio says, an outcome that nearly always benefits the front-runner.
“Everyone wants to see a knockout punch, but there rarely is one,” he says. “If Gomez starts to close in on Markey [in the polls] it won’t be because of any single thing he said tonight. It will be because his message is resonating – and the debates are just a part of that.”
The two candidates will meet again in debates on June 11 and June 18. The election is scheduled for June 25.