DUXBURY — Although surrounded by dozens of potential supporters, Gabriel Gomez kept to himself on a brisk Saturday morning last month as he went through a series of stretches.
Wearing a white campaign shirt emblazoned with his name in bold blue letters, black running shorts, dark baseball cap, and sunglasses, the 47-year-old Republican Senate hopeful slipped in earbud headphones and then, along with the others running the Lieutenant Timothy Steele Memorial 5k, took off as the starter’s gun fired.
While some would argue that Gomez, a political newcomer battling long odds to fill John Kerry’s US Senate seat, should spend each campaign moment talking with voters and donors, Gomez spoke to no one from the start of the race, just after 11 a.m., until his return to the finish line’s yellow caution tape exactly 21:52 later.
But the former US Navy SEAL is using runs like this one — and the sweaty hugs, high fives, and out-of-breath conversations that follow — as a rather unorthodox way to bond with the electorate, especially in suburbs rich with independent and right-leaning voters.
The GOP candidate has competed in at least two races each weekend of the general election campaign, logging well over 100 miles since announcing his candidacy in February. What began as a way for the candidate to stay in shape in a grueling campaign has become the most recurring part of Gomez’s public schedule.
‘They can see that this is who I really am, and respect that I am out here.’
“We did it the first time, and people just kept coming up to us, thanking him for running,” said Marine Bob Tirehurst, the Gomez campaign’s director of veterans affairs who has run a number of the races with Gomez, many of them for charities or fund-raisers for military families. “So he decided: Let’s do one of these every weekend, every day if we can.”
Road races have taken Gomez to Sutton, where he ran with Sheriff Lew Evangelidis, as well as to Hyannis for a Memorial Day race with Yarmouth Deputy Police Chief Steven Xiarhos.
At times his wife, Sarah, and their four children join Gomez in the races, bonding with other families running as a unit. Gomez has even become a forceful 5k evangelist among his campaign staff, goading many of them into joining him on the runs.
“Are you running tomorrow?” one campaign staff member asked another as they waited for Gomez to retrieve a bottle of water after a Saturday morning race. “Yeah, I guess,” the second responded. “I don’t think he’s letting me get out of it.”
In some ways, the races are reflective of Gomez’s larger campaign strategy, as they are rife with avid runners and military veterans with whom he can relate.
“Marines like me, other former SEALS, ROTC members, there are always tons of military families out at these,” Tirehurst said after the two completed a Saturday morning 5k in Winchester. “It’s a great way to get him out in front of people who are going to love him.”
After each race, Gomez pauses to catch his breath before making his way through the steady stream of runners finishing, congratulating them on their run and chatting about running playlists, stretches that can prevent cramps, and, of course, the upcoming election.
Gomez, who admits that he is far from a “smooth-talking politican,” notes that his conversations flow more naturally when he is with other runners and veterans.
“They can see that this is who I really am and respect that I am out here running with them,” the candidate said.
In a state known for loving its sports and its politics, political candidates have long showcased their athletic endeavors as part of their campaigns. The longtime senator Gomez hopes to replace, Secretary of State John Kerry, is an avid cyclist who has participated in the Pan-Mass Challenge. And the GOP long shot whose unlikely victory Gomez hopes to replicate, former senator Scott Brown, made his frequent triathlons a visible part of his campaign.
Gomez first made the road races an almost weekly part of his campaign schedule early in the primary, when he was an unknown political entity.
By April, he had completed more than a half-dozen races, including the Andover Run for the Troops, which doubled as a photo-op with Brown, who was also running.
Next, Gomez announced he was running the Boston Marathon, his fifth marathon, which he completed in 4 hours and 8 minutes, crossing the yellow finish line on Boylston Street about 50 minutes before the bombs went off.
The Gomez campaign, which has criticized Democratic opponent Edward J. Markey for not spending enough time on the stump, points to Gomez’s frequent races as the type of grass-roots, retail campaigning that gives them a shot in a state where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 3 to 1.
“You could run a 5k with Ed Markey, too,” Gomez told a reporter who offered to run along with the candidate in a race. “But you’d have to find him first.”
Gomez, once a relatively unpolished campaigner, has become increasingly comfortable in one-on-one voter interactions, hoping to replicate the personability often credited in part with propelling Brown to his unlikely 2010 Senate victory.
And those similarities could not have been more apparent in Duxbury, where not five minutes went by without a fellow runner bringing up that other Republican who ran for the Senate, largely on the back of a vibrant personality and retail campaigning.
“How about you go over and take a picture with Mr. Gomez, honey?” said Sean Varano, one of the road race’s organizers, beckoning his reluctant young daughter to pose in front of his iPhone camera.
But the shy girl was not sure what to make of the sweaty Senate candidate standing before her with a smile: “Who is he?” she asked softly.
“Well you remember Scott Brown, how he was a senator?” her father said, prompting a slight nod. “Well, Mr. Gomez is going to be a senator, too.”
And with that, she was convinced, skipping over to where a smiling Gomez — by now a pro at the post-race photo routine — was waiting.
The third and final debate of the US Senate special election campaign will take place Tuesday night at the WGBH studios in Boston. Sponsored by the Boston Media Consortium, the debate will run from 7 to 8 p.m. and be aired on WGBH, NECN, WCVB-TV, WHDH-TV, WGBH Radio, WBUR Radio, and Bloomberg Radio.