Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) faced off Wednesday night for the first televised debate of the Democratic primary in the Massachusetts special election for the U.S. Senate.
The two Democrats jockeyed to clarify their positions and paint their opponent’s record as counter to the best interests of Bay Staters.
The stakes were highest for Lynch, who has consistently lagged Markey in the polls, as he tries to convince Democratic primary voters that he's the best man for the job.
A third of Massachusetts voters remain undecided on the race, indicating there's an opportunity for either candidate to pull ahead in the next three weeks as the primary comes to a close.
Neither candidate appeared to deliver a knockout blow Wednesday night.
Lynch has been campaigning on his working class image, but had difficulty projecting this at the debate. Only in his opening statement and when he questioned Markey about what he’d do to help Massachusetts fishermen did Lynch successfully return to his campaign narrative of an independent voice heading to Washington to fight for working people.
Markey highlighted a number of Lynch's more conservative positions, particularly on abortion, pointing out that Lynch voted in favor of an amendment that would restrict federal funding for abortion.
But Markey, who has the endorsement of Planned Parenthood, did not push back when Lynch touted his defense of funding for Planned Parenthood on the House floor.
On healthcare reform, Lynch charged that Markey, who, along with a majority of Democrats backed the law, had lost "leverage" in passing a bill he sees as flawed.
Lynch voted against reform in a move that drew the ire of a number of labor unions in 2010 and has become a contentious issue in the race. He said on Wednesday night that he opposed the law because it increased taxes on health care for businesses and because it lacked a public option.
Markey hit back, charging that Lynch was "wrong when you were needed most on that bill," and noting that the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, a revered Democratic figure in Massachusetts politics, had fought for health care reform for the length of his legislative career.
Both said they'd be willing to vote to repeal aspects of the bill, but Markey said he'd work to prevent Republicans from repealing the bill in its entirety.
"The Republicans are going to try to repeal it. And I want to go to the Senate to make sure they do not repeal that historic piece of legislation based upon Massachusetts law," he said.
Noticeably absent from the debate was much talk from Markey about his leadership on environmental issues, an advantage that may have been neutralized by the involvement of billionaire Tom Steyer in the race. Despite pleas from both Lynch and Markey to stay out of the race, Steyer is targeting Lynch with a series of ads highlighting his support for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Lynch used Steyer's involvement in a fundraising pitch that framed him as a populist fighter for working people standing up to outside interests. On Wednesday night, Markey not only avoided all mention of his work on climate change, but also did not bring up Lynch's position on Keystone XL.
The strongest effort made by both candidates to distinguish themselves from the other came in the candidate question period, when Markey asked Lynch to defend his vote for sequestration, while Lynch asked Markey to defend his vote on the financial bailout.
Markey framed sequestration, which Lynch supported, as causing potentially devastating cuts that could cost Massachusetts jobs.
And Lynch charged that Markey, with his vote for the Wall Street bailout, essentially put money in the pockets of big banks to the detriment of average Americans.
Both candidates agreed that the recession is still hitting minorities; that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke deserves another term; and that Iran should not have nuclear weapons.
The Senate seat became available when John Kerry left the Senate to become secretary of State. Three Republican candidates also held a primary debate Wednesday night, although the Democratic nominee will be the heavy favorite in this decidedly blue state. Primaries for both parties take place on April 30, with the special election scheduled for June 25.
--This piece was updated at 11:47 to clarify Lynch's position on a public health care option, which he supports.