MALDEN — The temperature inside Piantedosi Baking Co. soared to 100 degrees, yet Gabriel E. Gomez looked remarkably cool.
His white shirt remained crisp, his tie fastened, despite the oppressive heat and the hairnet he had to wear for the bakery tour. Not a single bead of sweat emerged, even as Gomez stood by the ovens, where a manager pointed out the available cooler of Gatorade.
The Republican US Senate candidate had come to shake hands with workers inside the family-owned commercial bakery — pointedly located in the hometown of his Democratic opponent.
Campaign staffers wilted, reporters sweated, and there were not many votes to be had in the stifling heat. Gomez, however, was unfazed as he chatted with a manager about how long he had worked there. The cameras weren’t even rolling. And if they were, they would have captured him wearing a hairnet.
Throughout the short campaign season, the Cohasset businessman has made a point of showing he is campaigning for every vote. But for all his efforts, his approach of going business by business means often only small crowds are there to greet him, showcasing the challenge he faces trying to topple Edward J. Markey, a 37-year House veteran whose campaign can stock events with union activists and other supporters.
Gomez, 47, cuts an impressive figure on the campaign trail, arriving in his flight jacket and regaling voters with his credentials as a Navy SEAL. Small business owners admire him; women swoon. He captures the hearts of weekend warriors when he competes and campaigns at area road races.
His unusual profile and newcomer status are refreshing to voters who are disenchanted with Washington dysfunction.
“I think he’s bright, he’s articulate, good-looking and people like him,” said Joseph Piantedosi Jr., a co-owner of the bakery and a Gomez supporter. “I think he’s a good family man. The fact that he’s a SEAL is just so impressive.”
A Latino millionaire, Gomez also represents the nontraditional candidate that the Republican Party wants to cultivate. Like former US senator Scott Brown before him, he is relying on crossover appeal with independents to penetrate Massachusetts’ all-Democratic congressional delegation.
But for all his dynamism, Gomez is also an untested political wild card. At times, his inexperience — on the campaign trail and in policy discussions — is obvious.
He’s running against politics as usual, but he still has to master politics.
The fishermen who came to meet Gomez at the Cape Ann Seafood Exchange in Gloucester recently were desperate for someone to believe in.
New catch limits imposed by the federal government to preserve fish species are rapidly driving their industry to extinction, they said. Their only recent ally in Washington, Brown, was voted out of office in November. Would Gomez take up the cause?
“We need a champion,” Vito Calomo, a onetime fisherman who worked as Brown’s liaison to the fishing community, said as he introduced Gomez to the 17 men.
It was the very best kind of campaign event — fertile ground for a candidate to sow support with issue-driven voters prepared to like him.
Gomez steered away from feisty rhetoric or specific promises, saying he had come to listen and learn. He would not pretend to know much about the fishing industry.
Instead, he leaned on his usual talking points: “This should not be a partisan issue. I think this is exactly what’s wrong with D.C. It’s one of the reasons I’m running,” he said.
“His answers were a pretty broad brush stroke over the whole issue,” Al Cottone, a Gloucester fisherman in the group, said later. “I don’t think he wanted to get too in to detail. I don’t know if he can.”
Asked what he would do as senator to attract national attention to the plight of the local fishing industry, Gomez was similarly vague: “There’s one thing that I’ve seen and just kind of observed is that nothing gets done down in D.C. unless it’s made a priority.”
When one man complained that environmentalism has led to fishermen being demonized among preschoolers, Gomez tried to relate by suggesting that he too has been vilified on the campaign trail. His opponent, he said, has an ad showing Gomez on a split screen with Osama bin Laden. “I’m a SEAL,” Gomez said, reminding the group that the SEALs killed bin Laden. “And I have kids who have to get online and see that crap?”
By the end, Gomez had persuaded some in the crowd that he would stand up for the fishing industry.
Cottone said he was leaning toward him, but hadn’t yet made up his mind.
“I like a few things that he has to say, especially about term limits, but he’s very green when it comes to fishing,” he said. “But so was Scott Brown and he did well for us.”
Rather than be pinned down on policy stances, Gomez tries to keep the focus on big ideas: that Congress is broken and he’d fix it by putting people before politics. That career politicians are out of touch with the realities of their communities. He leans heavily on his biography, emphasizing a military career that seems unimpeachable, even to Democratic voters who might not support him.
And just as Brown’s barn jacket conveyed his image as an everyman, Gomez’s Navy flight jacket tells voters he is a breed apart. It is difficult to match Brown’s charisma. But Gomez’s down-to-earth demeanor instantly disarms voters who expect to be intimidated by the dashing former Navy SEAL.
“I’m a voter not particularly with that side, but I’m fascinated by Gabriel Gomez,” said Beth Boucher of West Roxbury, a prop stylist who passed Gomez on Boylston Street when he was campaigning with former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani. “He’s an interesting character. He kind of came out of nowhere.”
But will she vote for him? Probably not, she said.
In recent weeks, he has campaigned with several national GOP figures including Arizona Senator John McCain and Giuliani, moderates who could appeal to independent voters.
Some conservatives in Massachusetts remain suspicious of Gomez because he gave money to President Obama’s campaign in 2008. Yet he represents a compelling figure to a national Republican audience, particularly as the party tries to make inroads with Latino voters.
At campaign events, he downplays his years as a private equity investor, leading people to forget that he’s also a millionaire. Voters mistakenly think he is a “working class” candidate, which they say adds to his appeal. Gomez is the son of Colombian immigrants, but his father, educated in America, was vice president of exports for the world’s largest dealer of hops.
“He comes from humble beginnings, right? Which is what I’m all about,” said Beth Jordan, a supporter who spotted Gomez at the Winchester Town Day street fair and rushed up to get a photo with him.
Like Brown, Gomez fares well with the rough-and-tumble, muscular crowds who flock to local sporting events. At recent Bruins playoffs games, Gomez has stood outside TD Garden amid the flood of potential voters pouring in around him. When men reached out to Gomez, he would offer a hearty clasp or a clap on the shoulder. Some pledged to vote for him, thanked him for his military service, or congratulated him on his primary election victory.
“You’re gonna win!” shouted one fan passing by.
“Hey,” Gomez retorted, “Already did!”
In contrast with Markey’s campaign stops, which are often stacked with Democratic supporters and party insiders, many of Gomez’s public campaign stops, are quieter, low-visibility affairs that tend to be short on voters. On one day in May, Gomez joined Elena Barbera for her daily climb to the top of the Bunker Hill Monument — part of a monthlong fund-raiser for the victims of the Marathon bombings. Gomez, who ran the Marathon in April, wore his blue and yellow race jacket as he bounded up the stairs with her.
On a day he wanted to spotlight his opposition to the medical device tax, he visited Guided Surgery Solutions in a Wellesley office building. But only the chief executive officer and an intern were on hand.
On occasion, he attracts a packed crowd eager to meet him. At Anthony’s Barber Shop in Worcester, he worked the tiny room, shaking hands, pausing to answer questions from fans who poured in from the nearby office park.
Jeffrey Hall, a realtor, said he hopes Gomez will give conservatives a voice.
When Gomez spoke to the group, he framed the race — as he often does — in terms of new versus old, people over politics.
It was just what a frustrated Republican like Hall wanted to hear.
“It’s easy to lose faith in our politics because it seems Massachusetts is so one-sided,” Hall said.Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @stephanieebbert.