Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass) is going up against Gabriel Gomez in the Massachusetts U.S. Senate race-Elise Amendola/ASSOCIATED PRESS

To the surprise of many pundits, the first poll in the Massachusetts Senate race shows a close contest.

In the race to fill the seat vacated when John Kerry was picked for secretary of state, the Emerson College Polling Society survey finds: “A new survey of registered voters finds Congressman Ed Markey (D) with a 6 point lead over Republican candidate Gabriel Gomez 42 percent to 36 percent with 797 respondents. According to Felix Chen, President of ECPS, there is a post primary bounce for Gomez, and while the race is currently very close, it may only be a honeymoon period for the Republican who was a virtual unknown just a few months ago.”

On the other hand, Markey’s got some problems, as the National Republican Senate Committee was eager to point out in an email touting the poll. (“Both Markey and Gomez have high favorability ratings at 48% and 45%, but Markey also carries a high unfavorable rating of 37%, compared to Gomez who is at 25%.”) Even more critical, “independents are breaking for Gomez at a nearly 2 to 1 rate (46% to 25%) which is typically the ratio that Republicans need to be successful in Statewide Elections.” However, to win, Gomez will need to win 60 percent or more of independents, no small feat.

Gomez, a political moderate with a military and  business background, was a smart pick by Massachusetts Republicans. A NRSC official emailed me that Markey “has run a lack luster campaign, is a 36+yr D.C. insider,” while “Gomez is young, new and a Navy Seal.” Gomez and his NRSC allies are painting Markey as an ancient, out-of-touch pol.

Communications director Bray Dayspring made the case to me that “Ed Markey constantly inflates the importance of his liberal pet issues, like global warming and campaign-finance reform.” By contrast, actual voters are concerned primarily about the economy. That gap between Markey’s left-wing agenda and the concerns of middle- and working-voters is going to be front and center in the race.

Odds still favor Markey by virtue of the overwhelming Democratic advantage in the state. And it is not clear whether Markey will be as gaffe-prone as was Martha Coakley. However, not unlike former Sen. Scott Brown’s first race against Coakley in 2010, Republicans think they have a dynamic candidate going up against a lackluster opponent. Moreover, at a time when the president is in a second-term tailspin, it is an opportunity for Republicans to see if they can “send a message,” turn out in force in an off-year election and grab one seat, leaving only five to pick up in 2014 to win back the Senate.