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The Boston Globe

Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

Gomez’s goal — sensible centrism

Given a choice between an orthodox conservative and a lock-step liberal, Massachusetts will choose the liberal nine times out of 10. Actually, make that 10 out of 10.

But a pragmatic centrist versus a predictable progressive? Certainly when it comes to governors, this state has been willing to go that Republican route. See Messrs. Weld, Cellucci, and, at least as a gubernatorial candidate, Mitt Romney.

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A federal office interjects another twist. The state’s two modern-era Republican representatives, Peters Blute and Torkildsen, got broomed after Newt Gingrich’s controversial tenure essentially nationalized their congressional contests. And though Republican Scott Brown won the relatively low turnout Senate special in 2010, he couldn’t hold the seat in a regular election two years later. Part of Brown’s problem was that he was battling an undertow of concern that reelecting him could hand control of the Senate to the GOP.

But that worry, at least as an immediate concern, is off the table in this year’s special election. And if Gabriel Gomez is to win, sensible centrism is his path to victory. Thus the Republican Senate nominee is busily stressing that he’ll be a bipartisan moderate — and casting Democrat Ed Markey as a liberal partisan. On Monday, Gomez got a big boost in making his case in the form of a visit from US Senator John McCain, who looms large as an influential, well-respected national Republican.

Yes, there were some awkward moments, such as when reporters contrasted Gomez’s call for a two-term limit on senators with the five terms McCain has won. Further, for my money, Gomez’s assertion that Markey is weak on national security was more silly than substantive. He’d do better to concentrate on adding some much-needed policy heft to his own effort.

He is busily stressing that he’ll be a bipartisan moderate.

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That said, however, McCain’s pitch on Gomez’s behalf was an appealing one: The country needs a new generation of problem-solving leaders, as well as more elected officials who have military experience. Having McCain’s imprimatur should help Gomez with moderates and independents. McCain, after all, is a man who generally plays a constructive, adult role in today’s US Senate.

Although he’s rowed toward his goal with muffled oars, the senator has long sought a comprehensive solution on immigration. For his part, Gomez said he wanted to join the bipartisan group pushing the issue. McCain supports extending background checks to gun shows and to some private sales; Gomez says he’d work to revive that legislation. The two former Navy men stressed the importance of addressing the military’s seeming epidemic of sexual assault.

McCain also told me he’s working hard for a filibuster-limiting agreement. “I’m very concerned about blocking nominations and blocking judges,” he said. Although Gomez has stopped short of promising not to join reflexive GOP filibusters, he has said that he believes most matters should come to the Senate floor for a vote.

Add to those stands Gomez’s support for gay marriage, and you have at least the impressionistic campaign outline of a moderate.

One important dissimilarity undercuts that image, however. McCain has said he’s open to new revenues from closing tax loopholes as part of a larger deficit agreement, while Gomez rules out any new revenues. That isn’t a pragmatic deal-maker’s stance. (That said, after this winter’s tax increases on upper earners, it’s not as hard-line a position as it previously was.)

As for Markey, for those independents and moderates hoping for an iconoclastic Paul Tsongas Democrat willing to bring new thinking to old issues, the long-time congressman has been a disappointment. So far, he’s hewed to traditional Democratic verities and campaigned as a practitioner of old-fashioned interest-group liberalism. This week, for example, we learned via the Globe’s Michael Levenson that one big reason the Massachusetts Building Trades Council decided to back Markey is because he supports project labor agreements, a competition-limiting concession to union workers that drives up public construction costs.

In sum, with five weeks left in this campaign, a ploddingly predictable Markey is relying on the state’s Democratic default dynamic. It’s the higher-energy Gomez who is making this an interesting race — and winning attention and consideration as he does.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.

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