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Time tight to gather signatures for Senate race

Massachusetts candidates have rarely faced more major hurdles to get on a ballot than they do in the special US Senate race, where an abbreviated signature-­gathering period, combined with rare midwinter timing, has created a one-two punch of obstacles.

Last weekend’s blizzard wiped out a critical window for signature collection, leaving candidates with little time to gather the 10,000 names needed to qualify for the primary ballot.

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That has left growing concern, particularly within GOP ranks, that a major candidate could fail to meet the deadline.

Normally, candidates have at least three months to gather signatures, most of it in warmer weather. The unusually short window this time around, along with the harsh winter weather, is straining operations. Indoor locations are off limits, and voters who are outside are often reluctant to stop in the cold and talk to someone seeking a signature.

Adding to the herculean task on the Republican side is former US senator Scott Brown’s decision to wait until the last minute to disclose that he would not run for John F. ­Kerry’s former seat. The move left the GOP flat-footed. Brown’s unexpected announcement on Feb. 1 came the day ­after nomination papers were made available to campaigns. By that point, Democrats working for US representatives ­Edward J. Markey and Stephen P. Lynch already had hundreds of volunteers in the field.

“It can be done, but it is a ­really tough climb,’’ said Rob Gray, a Republican political ­operative and veteran of statewide campaigns. “For those who haven’t run a big campaign in the past, it’s a daunting challenge.’’

Neither of the GOP’s leading contenders — state Representative Daniel B. Winslow and wealthy businessman and former Navy SEAL Gabriel E. Gomez — has ever run a major political race in the past.

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The unusual timing and their lack of sophisticated political organizations are forcing Winslow and Gomez to spend tens of thousands of dollars of their own money to hire professional signature-collecting firms, funds that could be used for other campaign expenses.

The nightmarish task could cost the GOP a candidate some thought could have been the strongest — former US attorney Michael Sullivan, a former legislator and Plymouth district ­attorney. Sullivan has toyed with the idea, but the signature-gathering presents a major road block.

Another hurdle for Republicans is the smaller pool of registered voters who can provide the signatures. Only Republicans and unenrolled voters can sign GOP nominations papers. Likewise, only Democrats and unenrolled voters can sign Democratic candidates’ papers.

Registered Republicans make up just over 11 percent of the state’s voters, while Democrats account for almost 36 percent. The majority of voters, about 52 percent, are un­enrolled.

Democrats will face the same weather and time-related hurdles, but will have the benefit of a superior network of local grass-roots organizations, labor unions, and liberal public interest groups to call on for help.

Markey spokeswoman ­Giselle Barry said the congressman’s campaign has more than 500 volunteers in the field circulating nomination papers and has already submitted “several thousand’’ signatures to ­local election officials for certification. Candidates must submit the required signatures to city and town clerks by Feb. 27.

Secretary of State William F. Galvin, the state’s chief election officer, said he has heard rumblings that more than one campaign would like to push back the filing date. But he said a federal law that requires the ballots to be prepared 45 days before the April 30 primary makes it logistically impossible to set a later date.

“I can’t short-change military and other absentee voters because of candidates’ indecision,’’ said Galvin. “In fact, it’s not even discretionary because of the federal law.’’

Neither the Democrat nor Republican state party has formally endorsed a candidate, meaning that, by their rules, they cannot provide resources to any of their candidates until voters select nominees in the primary. The general election will be held on June 25.

Winslow spokesman Rob Willington said the campaign has had volunteers collecting signatures since last week when the legislator decided to jump into the race. But Willington said it will also have to hire a firm to supplement their work.

Gomez, a Cohasset resident whose only campaign experience came from an unsuccessful run for selectman in 2003, is likely to pay well over $100,000 of his own money to a professional signature-gathering firm. A top GOP official consulting with Gomez’s campaign said he has hired SpoonWorks, a Brookline company considered the premier signature-gathering outfit in the region.

Harold Hubschman, one of the company’s founders and owners, said his firm’s policy is not to talk about his clients or the work he does for them.

But he acknowledged any signature gatherer in the current Senate race is facing a unique set of difficult obstacles. He noted that never in recent memory has the time period for collecting signatures fallen in the harshest days of the year.

Even the primary before the 2010 special election to replace the late senator Edward M. Kennedy allowed more than six weeks for candidates to gather signatures, most of it in late summer and early fall.

“This is not for the faint of heart,’’ Hubschman said. “The weather this time of year is the worst condition to do this.’’

Still, with experienced and skilled professional signature gatherers, Hubschman said he is confident he could get the necessary number of signatures. The firm boasts that it has never fallen short in its 25-year history.

“Everyone in this election ­realizes that it is all hands on deck,’’ said John Walsh, the state Democratic Party chairman. “The short window to get the signatures and the storm make what can be a incredibly difficult job all the more harder.’’

Adding to the Democrats’ advantage is that the party plans to hold local caucuses in the next two weeks, providing a ready pool of valid signers.

Democratic campaigns were optimistic that they will clinch the necessary signatures, ­despite the weather.

“The storm was a minor bump but we are back on track,’’ said Barry, Markey’s spokeswoman. “The day those papers became available, all our volunteers was there ready to hit the pavement.’’

Conor Yunits, a spokesman for Lynch, expressed equal confidence. The blizzard, he said, was “inconvenient but not worri­some.”

Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.

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