An aggressive Gabriel E. Gomez wasted no opportunity to mockingly highlight Democrat Edward J. Markey’s nearly four decades in Washington while Markey used the first debate of the US Senate race Wednesday to paint his Republican rival as dangerously out of step with Massachusetts values.
During an hourlong face-off, Gomez repeatedly sought to link his opponent to a Congress mired in dysfunction and deeply unpopular with voters. Markey countered those attacks by arguing that for all his claims of bipartisanship, Gomez would join a GOP that has lurched to the right on issues such as gun control and abortion.
Gomez, who came armed with a series of one-liners, was often the more stinging of the two. In his first remarks to viewers, many of whom have only seen him in television ads, Gomez turned to the veteran congressman and said: “After 37 years in D.C., welcome back to Boston.”
It was a theme he returned to relentlessly during the debate, which was sponsored by The Boston Globe and WBZ-TV.
“You are basically Washington, D.C.,” Gomez said at one point. “I’m sorry, sir, but you are.”
Markey shrugged off the repeated digs at his years in Congress and embraced his long tenure, saying that it had allowed him to rack up a series of accomplishments for his district and the state.
He rattled off laws that he helped craft on matters ranging from port security to Internet access for the blind and deaf. He said he worked with Republicans to pass those laws and warned that Gomez was not a fresh face but an advocate of the “same old, stale Republican ideas.”
“I’ve had a job down in Washington: It’s been to battle Tea Party Republicans,” said Markey. “They want Mr. Gomez down there to help them get the majority that will ultimately further this gridlock that they have fostered over this last generation. That is the heart of the problem. That has been what I’ve been fighting.”
The debate came at a critical juncture. Markey appears to hold a lead in the polls less than three weeks before the June 25 special election to replace John F. Kerry, who left the Senate seat to become secretary of state. But with voter turnout expected to be low, the three debates have the potential to shake up the dynamics of a race that has so far failed to capture public interest.
Heading into the debate, Gomez, a former US Navy SEAL and a political newcomer, was seeking to show a command of the issues and to project a moderate outlook that would appeal to independent voters.
He succeeded in discussing the issues without any major slip-ups and put Markey on the defensive at times. But he also had rough patches when the Malden Democrat hammered Gomez’s opposition to an assault weapons ban and forced him to acknowledge that he would confirm a Supreme Court justice who opposes legalized abortion.
Those two issues have been at the heart of Markey’s efforts to paint Gomez as beholden to the right wing of the GOP.
Markey, who was first elected to Congress in 1976, was eager to show that he was not out of touch with the concerns of workaday voters in his home state and has the energy and enthusiasm to fight for them in the Senate. Though Markey remained largely unflustered, Gomez pressed him hard on his record of voting nearly in lock step with Democrats and of failing to repeal a medical device tax that hits a key industry in Massachusetts.
Perhaps the most emotional flashpoint of the evening centered on an issue that has not received much attention in the race: the attack on the US diplomatic installation in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, which killed four Americans, including Glen Doherty, a former Navy SEAL originally from Winchester.
Markey argued that House Republicans have been politicizing the investigation of the attacks in an attempt to derail a potential presidential bid by former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016. That brought an outraged response from Gomez.
“I can’t think of a more classic example of putting partisan politics ahead of the people,” he said. “The people need to know what happened. How can you sit here and say you’re more worried about Secretary Clinton’s potential presidential run, as opposed to what happened to Glen Doherty and why he died.”
Markey shot back at Gomez, saying, “You’re the one politicizing this,” and noted that he had attended Doherty’s funeral in Winchester.
“I honor him,” Markey said. “I honor his family, but we can’t allow this to turn into a political attempt to get at Hillary Clinton, rather than getting at the facts of what happened.”
When the debate turned to gun control, Markey went on the offensive, lacerating the Cohasset businessman for his opposition to a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
“Mr. Gomez supports the NRA and their position on those issues,” Markey said. “That’s a huge dividing line.”
Gomez, again expressing outrage, said it was “beyond disgusting” for Markey to have run an ad pointing out that Gomez’s position on the issue means he would not ban the kind of assault weapon that was used in the Newtown, Conn., school shooting. Gomez said he would, however, support a bill to expand background checks for gun buyers.
“You want to be divisive about that, instead of trying to fix and solve the problem,” Gomez said.
It was Gomez’s turn to take an assertive posture when the candidates clashed over President Obama’s health care law, which is paid for in part by the medical device tax.
Both Gomez and Markey support repealing that tax, but Gomez questioned why Markey had not done more to make that a reality. Suggesting again that Markey was cloistered in Washington, Gomez urged the congressman to visit some of the small businesses in Massachusetts that he said are hurting because of the tax.
When the debate moved to abortion, Markey pounced, seeing an opportunity to link his rival to the more conservative elements of the Republican Party.
Gomez said he could support a mandatory 24-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions, saying that “is not asking a lot.” He also said he could vote to confirm a Supreme Court nominee who opposes Roe v. Wade.
“I don’t believe there should be a litmus test,” he said. “If a judge comes in front of me and they follow the Constitution, and they’re ethical, and they’re prochoice, and they’ve done a good job, I’ll vote for them. If they’re prolife, I’ll vote for them.”
At the same time, he sought to defuse the issue, saying that while he was “personally prolife,” he was not planning to go to Washington to make any changes in abortion rights law.
Markey scoffed at that assertion, arguing that the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice who opposes Roe v. Wade could jeopardize legalized abortion. He said he would not vote to confirm Supreme Court nominees who oppose abortion rights, saying that was the same test espoused by senators Edward M. Kennedy, Kerry, and Elizabeth Warren.
globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.