Massachusetts Senate hopefuls spar in first debate

The race to fill John Kerry's Senate seat has begun. Three candidates seeking the Republican nomination in the special election had their first debate tonight.

Steven Senne / AP
Massachusetts Republican hopefuls for the U.S. Senate debated tonight at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. (L-R) Former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez, U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan, and state Rep. Daniel Winslow.

The three Republicans running in a special U.S. Senate election in Massachusetts sparred in their first debate of the campaign Tuesday night.

Norfolk state Rep. Daniel Winslow, former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan and Cohasset businessman Gabriel Gomez jousted on everything from the recent across-the-board federal spending cuts to the use of the filibuster in the Senate.

The three also agreed on many of the issues raised during the matchup at Stonehill College, including the recent filibuster by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. All three said it was a legitimate tactic to force the Obama administration to clarify its drone policy.

The three also faulted Washington for failing to reach a deal to avoid $85 billion in sweeping spending cuts.

"Quite frankly, I think our government is trying to frighten us," Sullivan said.

Gomez said the cuts show a lack of seriousness among what he called "career politicians."

"People have a lack of confidence that is hindering economic growth," Gomez said. "In order to grow the economy, you have to have more confidence."

Winslow said the gridlock is more evidence of why the GOP needs to recast its image.

He said that's particularly important as the party hopes to reach out more to women, younger voters and minorities who backed Democratic President Barack Obama by hefty margins during last year's election.

Winslow said the party should sell itself as the party of those striving to succeed.

"We are not the grand old party," he said. "We have to be what we are, which is the growth opportunity party."

The three staked out largely similar positions on gun control, saying they support the Second Amendment right to bear arms, but said there should be efforts to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

Gomez and Winslow said they support some changes to the nation's immigration laws.

Winslow said the nation needs to make immigration simpler for those seeking to become citizens legally to help avoid the problems of illegal immigrants, but opposes amnesty.

"I think we have to have a comprehensive approach to immigration reforms," he said.

Gomez, whose parents came to the United States from Colombia, also said he was opposed to amnesty, but conceded that an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws is needed.

He said the pathway to citizenship in the country shouldn't be easy, but also shouldn't be impossible.

"I've seen firsthand the economic benefits of immigration," he said.

Sullivan said he would make an amnesty exception in the case of veterans, who he said should be allowed to become citizens on an expedited schedule.

"I think they deserve amnesty," he said.

Asked about term limits, Gomez said senators should be limited to two terms and Sullivan and Winslow said they would pledge not to serve more than two terms.

All three also praised the recent 13-hour filibuster by Paul.

Sullivan said Paul's questions about the administration's policy on the use of drones were legitimate, while Winslow he was "very proud to be a Republican" during the filibuster.

Gomez, a former Navy SEAL, joked, "I used to be a SEAL. I think I could go for a few days" instead of 13 hours.

Gomez and Winslow were also critical of the federal prosecution of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, whose supporters have said was driven to suicide while facing federal charges in Boston. Sullivan said a lengthy prison sentence could have been avoided.

There were a few awkward moments during the debate.

At one point Sullivan conceded that he hadn't read the policy statements on his campaign website, although he said they had been described to him.

Gomez said he would release the letter he sent to Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick asking to be named interim senator. Gomez said he had handed the letter to Mo Cowan, a Patrick aide who was ultimately named to the interim post.

And Winslow, when asked to name his favorite senator from Massachusetts, named John Adams, who served as the nation's second president, but not as senator.

The debate is the first in the abbreviated primary season for the Senate seat left vacant by the resignation of John Kerry to become secretary of state.

The primary is April 30 and the general election on June 25.

On the Democratic side, Congressmen Edward Markey and Stephen Lynch are competing against each other.

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