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Candidates aim to stand out at congressional debate

Five of the Democrats seeking the nomination for Edward Markey’s former US House seat (Will Brownsberger, Katherine Clark, Peter Koutoujian, Carl Sciortino, and Karen Spilka) faced off in an NECN debate on Tuesday.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Five of the Democrats seeking the nomination for Edward Markey’s former US House seat (Will Brownsberger, Katherine Clark, Peter Koutoujian, Carl Sciortino, and Karen Spilka) faced off in an NECN debate on Tuesday.

The candidates sitting under the bright television lights of a high-stakes debate on Tuesday all faced the same daunting task: persuading voters that they would make the strongest US representative, even though their liberal positions on many hot-button issues are essentially indistinguishable.

It is the same challenge that has dogged the seven Democrats vying to succeed Edward J. Markey in the months since the race for the Fifth Congressional District heated up in June, when Markey was elected to the US Senate.

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With a week to go before the Oct. 15 special primary election, political analysts now believe that much of each campaign’s success or failure in the low-key contest will depend on the door-by-door slog of finding supportive voters and getting them to the polls next week.

But the race has garnered little attention across the heavily Democratic district, which runs from Winthrop to Woburn to Southborough to Holliston. That meant that Tuesday’s New England Cable News forum — the first widely televised debate in the race — offered the five Democratic contenders who participated a first and probably final chance to make their pitches to a wider audience.

State Senator Karen Spilka of Ashland acknowledged the obvious.

“You have a hard choice. We all sound the same,” she said, noting the Democratic candidates’ uniform support for abortion rights, increased federal gun control measures, and other touchstone liberal agenda items.

Spilka asserted, however, that she was someone who would go to Washington, take on tough fights on behalf of her constituents, and win. The state Senate majority whip, echoing comments she often makes on the trail, cited her “long track record” and “27 major bills passed” as evidence of her legislative mettle.

State Representative Carl M. Sciortino, who has worked to position himself to the left of his colleagues over the course of the campaign on domestic and foreign policy issues, said he would be a force for progressive causes in the halls of the US Capitol, citing his time on Beacon Hill.

“We don’t just need someone who will cast the right votes and send out a press release. We need someone who will organize and work behind the scenes to get the job done,” the Medford Democrat, first elected in 2004, said.

Middlesex Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian, a former state legislator himself, said he had spent a career working to pass not just marquee policies like Massachusetts’ landmark health care law and stronger gun control measures, but also less visible laws that also had a profound effect on people’s lives — issues that “you don’t see on . . . CNN but are important to individuals and families,” he said. In previous forums the Waltham Democrat has cited a workplace smoking ban and antistalking legislation as examples.

State Senator Katherine Clark of Melrose, who has run a campaign with a focus on women’s and family issues, said her “experience and leadership” make her stand out from the pack.

“Throughout my career,” she said, “I’ve always stood for women’s rights, making sure every child has an equal opportunity for education.”

Though there was much agreement on policy issues, state Senator Will Brownsberger of Belmont stood out from the pack on a few matters, sometimes prompting a feisty back and forth with his competitors.

Anchor Jim Braude, who moderated the debate, began by asking the candidates about the most pressing Capitol Hill issue: a potential US default on its debt if Congress does not soon boost the country’s borrowing authority.

The White House and congressional Democrats have said they won’t negotiate with congressional Republicans, who have demanded adjustments to President Obama’s health care law, with the prospect of a default looming.

But Brownsberger said he was open to Democrats making a deal to avoid a default.

He said supports the repeal of the medical tax embedded in the Affordable Care Act, and would be willing to support including its repeal in a pact to raise the debt limit.

“If that does it, that’s great,” he said.

His competitors vociferously disagreed, saying Democrats should not negotiate under duress.

“I disagree with Will on this,” Clark said. “We cannot give in to the extremist Republicans who are holding our very economy hostage.”

Later in the debate, Braude turned the discussion to recent revelations about National Security Agency programs that gather Americans’ electronic data.

All the candidates said they supported more privacy protections, but Brownsberger was the only person on the stage to say he would have voted against a July piece of legislation that would have curtailed a part of the NSA’s snooping power. He said it did not go far enough.

“I’m the one in the race who will do what’s right when it’s difficult,” said Brownsberger, making his case for why he was different.

Also running in the Democratic primary are Martin Long, an Arlington author, and Stoneham resident Paul John Maisano, who works in the construction industry. Neither participated in Tuesday’s debate.

There are three Republicans battling for their party’s nomination in the Fifth District: actuary Tom Tierney; Harvard nanophysics researcher Mike Stopa; and businessman and lawyer Frank J. Addivinola Jr.

The special general election is Dec. 10.

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.
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