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Political Attacks Ramp Up In U.S. Senate Race In Mass.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

OK. Now to democracy at work - in Massachusetts. It's the race to fill Secretary of State John Kerry's former Senate seat. On the Democratic side, congressman Ed Markey, who's been in office 36 years. On the Republican side, a political newcomer, former Navy SEAL and businessman Gabriel Gomez. Both are stepping up their attacks on each other just four weeks before the special election.

NPR's Tovia Smith has this report.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Gabriel Gomez began his campaign gently jabbing Markey for being in Congress, as he puts it, since eight-track cassettes were big. But things have since taken a turn for the nasty.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Negative ads for dirty Ed Markey, smearing Gabriel Gomez.

SMITH: A new Gomez ad blasts two spots from Markey. In one, Markey criticizes Gomez on gun control.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: And Gomez is against banning high-capacity magazines like the ones used in the Newtown school shooting.

SMITH: In the other, Markey pans Gomez for accusing President Obama of politicizing Osama bin Laden's death. That ad shows Gomez and bin Laden on the same screen, which prompted the response ad from Gomez.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: ...comparing him to bin Laden? Now, Markey actually blames Gomez for the Newtown shooting. Disgusting. Thirty-seven years in Congress. Dirty Ed Markey.

MICHAEL GOLDMAN: That's not dirty. What ads are they talking about?

SMITH: Democratic consultant Michael Goldman is one of many now saying it's Gomez whose ads are misleading.

GOLDMAN: In desperation, he's just trying to generate anything that's going to catch people's attention.

SMITH: But Gomez has not backed down. Indeed, the former Navy SEAL yesterday jacked it up even further.

GABRIEL GOMEZ: Ed Markey is dirty Ed Markey. For him to be as dirty and low - pond scum. To like, put me up to next to bin Laden, he's just got to be called what he is.

GOLDMAN: That kind of language has no place in public life. It's really sad. He is basically lowering the level of discussion here.

SMITH: Ed Markey called the pond scum reference unfortunate. Tufts University professor Jeffrey Berry agrees that Gomez may have hurt himself more than Markey.

JEFFREY BERRY: We expect a rough and tumble campaign, but Gomez has crossed a line. The language is inappropriate, and it makes him look immature.

SMITH: The rough and tumble will likely intensify. Two debates are set for next month. Voters can expect Gomez to keep casting himself as a moderate willing to buck his party by supporting gay marriage, for example, and immigration reform; while Markey keeps painting Gomez as another Republican who will block the president's agenda. Nationalizing the race becomes a little trickier now, with the Obama administration's own scandals. But so far in Massachusetts, support for the president still runs deep; and many voters appear uninterested in their third Senate race in less than three years.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN EVENT)

GOMEZ: Well, good morning, everybody.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Good morning...good morning...

SMITH: About 20 people showed up at a Gomez campaign event yesterday, including Kenny Jaffe(ph), a registered independent who leans Democratic but also voted for Scott Brown.

KENNY JAFFE: As much as I like Ed Markey - and I know him - I want change in Washington. So I'm looking for somebody like you...

SMITH: Jaffe went on to ask about gun control; and Gomez repeated that he supports expanding background checks to close the gun show loophole, but opposes a federal ban on assault weapons. Afterward, Jaffe called that a deal-breaker.

JAFFE: You know, war weapons sold in Wal-Marts? As long as he continues that stance, I will never - oh no, my gosh.

SMITH: It underscores the challenge Gomez faces in the very blue-leaning Massachusetts. The race is seen as Markey's to lose, but this is also the state where the specter of Scott Brown still looms large.

JOHN SIVOLELLA: It's a special election, so weird things can happen.

SMITH: Republican John Sivolella says Gomez should stay positive, relying on his compelling bio as a first-generation Latino, Navy SEAL, Harvard grad and self-made businessman. He says Gomez's pond-scum comment yesterday may have been more of a rookie mistake than a deliberate strategy. And Gomez may also be frustrated that he's not getting the kind of national support that Scott Brown did.

SIVOLELLA: That's a puzzle because he's a really good candidate for the Republican Party.

SMITH: Some see it as a sign the GOP doesn't believe Gomez can pull off another Scott Brown surprise. Indeed, even a former Navy SEAL would have a hard time pulling off a repeat of a sneak attack.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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