NEEDHAM, Mass. — The five candidates hoping to fill the seat of former U.S. Sen. John Kerry faced off in a live television debate Wednesday night. As the candidates from each party sought to win over voters — or just gain some name recognition – clear differences emerged.
The Republicans teed off in the first half-hour of the split format debate. They all condemned Democratic fiscal policies, called for reduced government spending, and argued that the economy was paramount. But it was social issues that brought some life to the debate.
There was some jousting over gay marriage — although all three Republicans said they would vote to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies many federal benefits for same-sex couples. A question on abortion, however, drew sharp contrasts between former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan, of Abington, and state Rep. Daniel Winslow, of Norfolk. Sullivan called himself pro-life.
“I’ll do whatever I can obviously to protect life,” he said. “It’s not lost on me that the fact of the matter is there are two lives involved. It’s the woman’s life and it’s the unborn child’s life, and I think as a country we have to do everything we possibly can to support women that sometimes find themselves in a situation that they think is a crisis.”
Winslow called himself pro-choice.
“Roe v. Wade is the settled law of the United States and I support a woman’s right to choose,” he said. “But for me it’s a very personal decision and for that reason, consistent with my view of a limited role for government, it’s a decision for a person’s conscience, her faith, and her family.”
Cohasset equity fund manager Gabriel Gomez seemed to fall somewhere in between.
“I was raised Catholic, I’m personally pro-life,” Gomez said. “But I am not going down to D.C. to change the law. Roe v. Wade was settled 40 years ago. It’s settled law in Massachusetts. Justice Scalia, a very conservative justice, has effectively said that it’s established law. And I agree with him. However I do not support late-term abortion. I think you should have parental consent.”
Abortion was a flash point for the two Democratic rivals as well. Malden Congressman Edward Markey criticized rival Stephen Lynch, of Boston, for supporting a measure that would have barred federal funds from paying for insurance that covered abortion access. But Lynch, who calls himself pro-life, struck back, noting that before the 1980s, Markey was in the same camp.
“You actually supported an amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade, so this is not just an evolution, this is acrobatics on this position,” Lynch charged.
“No,” Markey replied. “For 30 years I have been a consistent supporter, and again that is why I have the support of Planned Parenthood and NARAL in this race. Thirty years. Three years ago Steve was voting for the Stupak amendment, denying insurance coverage for a woman to have this option medically provided to her.”
It was one of several points when the Democrats tried to turn previous votes against each other. Markey hammered Lynch for voting for the so-called sequestration measure that’s now forcing across-the-board cuts in federal spending — cuts Markey says disproportionately hit Massachusetts. Lynch countered by critiquing Markey’s vote to bail out national banks.
“That bailed out Wall Street’s biggest banks, that caused a massive problem for the American people, destroyed trillions of dollars in wealth for a lot of families,” Lynch said. “You took $787 billion from taxpayers, which in my district I have tens of thousands of people don’t even have a bank account. You took their money and gave it to Wall Street.”
Lynch also criticized Markey for supporting the Affordable Care Act and then trying to repeal a medical device tax in it that’s unpopular in Massachusetts. But Markey turned the tables, invoking Sen. Ted Kennedy’s long effort to pass national health care legislation.
“Steve, when that vote came up, you were wrong when you were needed most on that bill,” Markey said. “That was the only option we had, to support President Obama and to put that bill on the books.”
A WBUR poll this week shows Markey with the highest level of support and name recognition among all the candidates. But it also reveals that a healthy chunk of both Republican and Democratic primary voters are still undecided.
The party primaries will be April 30; the special election is set for June 25.
This post was updated with Morning Edition feature content.