It didn't take long for the first Massachusetts Senate debate to turn nasty Wednesday night.
Sparring over the issue of guns, former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez (R) called an attack ad from Rep. Edward J. Markey (D) "beyond disgusting," while Markey retorted by calling his opponent's charge "ludicrous."
With that, the tone was set in the first of three televised debates ahead of the June 25 special election for the seat once held by Secretary of State John F. Kerry. During an hour-long back and forth, Gomez and Markey weren't shy about going after each other on issues ranging from abortion to foreign policy and the economy.
"You're the first and only political candidate to invoke the Newtown massacre for political gain. That is beyond disgusting," Gomez said in reference to a Markey ad that mentioned the mass shooting and hit the Republican for opposing a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
"I'm not linking Mr. Gomez to Newtown," responded Markey. "That's a ludicrous position which he has. But it's not as ludicrous as his position to oppose banning assault weapons."
Gomez said he supports the Manchin-Toomey measure to expand background checks on gun sales. Markey said Manchin-Toomey was only "the minimum" of what needs to be passed.
Less than three weeks ahead of the election, polls show Markey with a lead, but not an insurmountable one. Gomez's allies are hoping a late push can put him over the top, while Markey's team is trying to ensure the Republican does not creep up in the polls. President Obama will stump for Markey in Boston next week.
Throughout Wednesday's debate, hosted by WBZ-TV and the Boston Globe, Gomez sought to cast Markey as a hyper-partisan creature of Washington who has lost touch with the Bay State and failed to spearhead meaningful legislation in recent years.
"You are the poster boy for term limits," he told Markey, the dean of the state's congressional delegation.
Markey, meanwhile, tried time and again to link Gomez to the national Republican agenda.
"Both Newt Gingrich and Mitch McConnell ... endorsed and sent contributions up to Mr. Gomez," said Markey. "They wants Mr. Gomez down there to help them get the majority that will ultimately further this gridlock."
Political maneuvering aside, there were some substantive policy disagreements between the two. Gomez insisted health-care reform should not have been undertaken at the federal level, while Markey highlighted provisions in the measure he supports. Gomez called for Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to resign while Markey did not join his call. Markey linked Gomez to Republican criticism over the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi, Libya. The GOP criticism, Markey charged, was a "political attempt to just get at Hillary Clinton."
On abortion, Markey slammed Gomez for not having a litmus test that would prevent him from supporting a Supreme Court nominee that would overturn "Roe v. Wade." Gomez countered that he would not do anything to change the law. The Republican also said he didn't see a problem with a 24-hour waiting period for a woman to get an abortion.
Waging his first campaign, Gomez appeared mostly at ease when discussing foreign policy issues. But the newcomer appeared shaky at times, too. He underscored the importance of aligning with the right "terrorist group" in Syria before correcting himself to say "rebel group."
Both candidates agreed about the necessity of immigration reform. Gomez, the son of Colombian immigrants, said he was committed to reform, declaring that he would make the bipartisan Senate "Gang of Eight" a "Gang of Nine."
The two candidates will debate again on June 11 and 18.