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The Boston Globe

Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

Gomez vs. GOP, Markey vs. himself

The first debate is finally upon us in this not-so-special Senate race, and with it, a test of two campaign messages that reduce to this:

Ed Markey: Trust me, I am a traditional Democrat.

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Gabriel Gomez: Trust me, I’m not a traditional Republican.

As the campaign enters its last three weeks, Gomez faces the tougher challenge. He must persuade moderates that he’ll be a truly independent voice and vote in the US Senate, and not a Republican who aids and abets the GOP’s anti-Obama obstructionism there.

Unfortunately for Gomez, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell just delivered Markey a slow, easy pitch with his e-mail soliciting campaign contributions for Gomez. With Caroline Kennedy by his side as he addressed Brookline seniors on Monday, Markey took his best swing.

To be sure, the candidates’ hurdles are of different heights.

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“Mitch McConnell once said that his goal . . . was to make President Obama a one-term president, and now he’s campaigning for Gabriel Gomez,” he said. “And we know why. Mr. Gomez would bring national Republicans one step closer to controlling the Senate and blocking the entire agenda of President Obama.”

By then, Gomez had already tried to deflect that line of attack.

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“I’m a new Republican and I am going to make this a new Republican Party,” he told reporters earlier at a Quincy campaign stop. “When I get down to D.C., a lot of my comrades in the Republican Party are going to think I’m a major pain in the butt.”

Gomez ticked off four issues where he breaks with national Republicans: He favors gay marriage, believes in climate change, backs immigration reform, and supports expanded background checks for gun sales.

Having a former Navy SEAL pushing background checks certainly could help the persuasion effort on that issue. That’s also true on gay marriage. And by increasing the tally of pro-immigration-reform Senate Republicans, Gomez could add to the momentum there. Contrariwise, on climate change, where Gomez lacks any meaningful policy prescription and where the GOP is in thorough denial, it’s hard to imagine him making any difference.

But Gomez’s challenge transcends individual issues. McConnell has long been about using the virtual filibuster, which raises the required votes from a majority to 60, to thwart Obama’s agenda. So I asked Gomez what he would do if and when McConnell tells him that the Senate Republican team expects him to join such an effort.

Honestly, that also should have been an easy, right-over-the-plate, pitch. One could, say, pledge to filibuster only on truly momentous issues. Or only to participate in stand-and-speak filibusters. Or both.

“I am not going to kowtow to anybody when I get down to D.C.,” Gomez replied.

That’s a weak bunt at best. That said, Markey said at least three weeks ago that he’d get back to me on what his m.o. on filibusters would be; I still haven’t heard.

Markey’s challenge? To show some new thinking, some straight talk about the problems confronting the country.

So far, it’s been all but impossible to get the long-time congressman to move beyond his careful, no-tough-truths policy formulations.

The long-term deficit? He opposes any reduction in Medicare or Social Security benefits. Instead, we need “comprehensive reform” or a “comprehensive overhaul” of the tax system. What would be in a Markey basket of proposals? Cutting defense, closing tax loopholes, ending oil-industry tax breaks, and raising higher taxes on upper earners. How much? Markey simply won’t say. Push him, and he returns again and again (and again) to his “comprehensive” formulation.

Ask Markey’s camp where he has broken with Democratic orthodoxy, and here’s the list that comes back: In the 1990s, he joined several Republicans to back competition in the wholesale and retail electricity markets; in recent years, he has pushed a cap-and-trade system, originally a GOP remedy, to battle climate change; decades back, he supported spectrum auctions for wireless devices; and his 1996 telecommunications act replaced a monopoly with competition.

In terms of iconoclasm on hot-button issues, Gomez’s examples trump Markey’s. That said, national GOP nostrums are easier to break with since they are much further out of the Massachusetts mainstream.

To be sure, the candidates’ hurdles are of different heights.

If voters conclude Gomez will end up enabling McConnell, the former Navy SEAL will probably be a gone gosling.

Markey, by contrast, may be able to slog it out as a cautious, robotic, orthodox Democrat. Yet he’d be a far more appealing candidate if he could muster some specificity and candor on the challenges ahead.

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

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