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US Senate debate | 7 p.m., WBZ

Missions clear for Gomez, Markey in debate tonight

Gabriel Gomez’s misstep in calling Rep. Edward Markey (left) “pond scum’’ underscored his inexperience on the campaign trail.

Globe Staff photos

Gabriel Gomez’s misstep in calling Rep. Edward Markey (left) “pond scum’’ underscored his inexperience on the campaign trail.

With less than three weeks to go until election day, the campaign for US Senate will enter a critical final phase Wednesday night as the candidates bring their message directly to voters in the first of three televised debates.

For each, the debate presents the opportunity to rewrite some of the emerging story lines of the expedited special election campaign and to set the tone for the final weeks.

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GOP candidate Gabriel Gomez, who has yet to prove he can speak in-depth about complex policies, will have to display a confident command of the issues and talk beyond his usual sound bites. Gomez, a former Navy SEAL with little campaign experience, must also prove he can appeal to moderate and independent voters.

His opponent, US Representative Edward J. Markey, must show not only that he stands with the Democratic Party but that Gomez’s positions are far out of sync with the Massachusetts electorate. He also must make clear that he remains passionate and vital after nearly 37 years in Congress.

With the June 25 election fast approaching and polls showing Markey with a lead, Republicans are looking for a perfect confluence of events that would set the political world on fire, rousing the sort of anti-Washington, anti-Democrat dominance that swept Scott Brown to a stunning GOP victory in the January 2010 special election to replace the late Edward Kennedy in the Senate.

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Peter N. Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College, said he does not see those dynamics in place this year. He said the controversies that have engulfed Washington in recent weeks have failed to roil the national and state political waters as President Obama’s health care initiative did in 2010.

“The contours favor Markey and nothing has changed that since the beginning of the race,’’ Ubertaccio said. “He has maintained the lead. I read the lack of interest as a boon for him.’’

So far, the race to replace John F. Kerry is hardly a barnburner contest like Massachusetts voters have seen in the past. Markey’s light public campaign schedule reflects the pace.

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Markey has proven to be a cautious and even robotic Senate candidate, rarely varying from standard Democratic positions. Despite his years in public office, he can be awkward when facing the media, although he does not shy from the press. His performance on the campaign trail is in sharp contrast to his reputation in Congress where he is respected for his long record of legislating.

“Ed Markey is running out the clock,’’ said Jeffrey M. Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University. “He is ahead and is being extraordinarily cautious not to make any mistakes that could generate enthusiasm for Gomez. He is hunkered down, campaigning in safe venues in front of Democratic audiences.”

The frustration for some Republicans is that Gomez’s political inexperience has hobbled his efforts to contrast himself to the older, plodding Markey.

Gomez’s misstep in calling Markey “pond scum’’ underscored his inexperience on the campaign trail. He has also displayed little policy depth on key issues, such as abortion and foreign affairs. His refusal to release documents about a $281,500 historic-preservation tax deduction for his Cohasset home hurt his image as a new fresh face.

So far, the race to replace John F. Kerry, now secretary of state, is hardly a barnburner contest like Massachusetts voters have seen in the past. Markey’s light public campaign schedule reflects the pace.

“They have him on ice,’’ one leading Democrat who is actively supporting Markey said of the candidate’s low profile.

Markey aides bristle at the description.

“What’s visible is only part of the story. Things that matter — like massive voter contact — can’t be seen,” said Dan Payne, a Markey adviser. “The Markey campaign is like an iceberg.’’

Still, a sudden shift is not out of the question in the final 20 days of the race. Solid performances by Gomez in Wednesday’s debate, sponsored by WBZ-TV and The Boston Globe, and the two other scheduled debates could be enough to reshape the race and attract the national funds he needs to compete with Markey, who has raised about $6.5 million in the past five months. That is on top of the $3.2 million he had in his campaign account when he launched his Senate bid this year.

Kirsten L. Hughes, the chairwoman of the Massachusetts Republican Party, is convinced that there is good potential such a switch can occur. Gomez, she said, needs to get through to voters with his campaign theme that it is indeed time for a fresh face to replace the calcified Democratic old guard. That could put the Republican nominee on the path to an upset that would shake national politics.

“People are tired of the same-old, same-old,’’ Hughes said. “Markey is not only not exciting, he’s been a mediocre congressman. Gomez represents a new brand of leadership.’’

The subdued race seems to be putting a damper on Gomez’s ability to generate the kind of financial support that propelled Brown’s candidacy in 2010, either from individuals across the country or from the national party.

“The national Republican Party has seemed to have given him the back of its hand,’’ said Berry, the Tufts professor. “They have said things that are reassuring, but the big hitters in Washington are not working to inject funds into his lagging campaign.’’

At this point, the funding from national sources seems to be moderate when compared with Markey’s fund-raising, according to state GOP sources. The national Republican Party is giving the state GOP about $375,000 in cash and in-kind contributions to build a get-out-the-vote operation to compete with the Democrats’ robust field organization. In addition, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has created a joint fund-raising committee with Gomez’s campaign that is expected to raise about $1 million.

Gomez is also expected to get some significant help from a super PAC — the Committee for a Better Massachusetts — that former Romney presidential adviser Eric Fehrnstrom has created to support the GOP nominee. Its funding sources and expenditures have not been publicly disclosed, so it is not clear how much the committee is spending.

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