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    A snippy opening, then things got serious

    So far, the Massachusetts senatorial campaign has been a snippy affair, the two candidates — longtime congressman Ed Markey and former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez — taking potshots at each other on any manner of personal topics. And thus the opening question, from Globe political editor Cynthia Needham, was about each other’s character. Gomez, up first, turned to Markey, smiled, and said, “After 37 years in D.C., welcome back to Boston.”

    To his credit, Markey held his tongue. And from there the debate suddenly veered serious, delving into the tough topics of the day: gun control, national health care, middle-class struggles, war-making, Washington scandals, immigration reform, and abortion.

    Moderator Jon Keller has developed a near-master’s touch of keeping the conversation moving. He permitted a 90-second response to each newly posed topic, and then forced a series of ever-shorter rebuttals. If the candidates were actually adding something rather than merely repeating themselves, he would let them go on. Otherwise, off to a new topic.


    A first debate between candidates is all about expectations. The worry about Markey has been that he’s a weary old pol, running his campaign on autopilot. The man who showed up, however, looked good and seemed engaged, refusing to sit back and absorb Gomez’s punches.

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    For his part, the neophyte candidate — portrayed as more image than substance — mostly seemed to know what he was talking about. Granted, there was one mystifying series of exchanges about whether Markey had ever authored successful legislation over the last 20 years. Gomez would say he hadn’t, and on each rebuttal Markey would tick off a new list of those he had. Bad move: It just gave Markey an opportunity to blow his own horn. Still, on other matters — such as the fears businesspeople have about the impending costs of Obamacare — Gomez seemed far more in touch with on-the-ground worries.

    This was also a time for each man to size up the other. One expects Gomez will have a better answer next time around on Roe v. Wade and picking Supreme Court justices. One expects as well that Markey will do better when he talks about the scandals currently embroiling the Capital. He sounded far too defensive about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and, come to think of it, never answered the question posed to him: Should Attorney General Eric Holder be fired?

    Meaning, I think, there’s a lot more to come in debate number two.

    Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.