BOSTON The candidates fighting for Massachusetts' open seat in the U.S. Senate staked out contrasting positions on recent revelations that the National Security Agency was tracking Americans' use of phones and the Internet in a debate on Tuesday.
Veteran Democratic Congressman Edward Markey defended the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, which has described the program - revealed by a recent leak from a former NSA contractor - as necessary to national security.
"We have to make sure that there are protections put in place to be sure that innocent Americans don't have their privacy compromised," said Markey, who was first elected to Congress in 1976. But, he added, "there are terrorists out there, there are criminals out there who want to hurt our country."
His rival, private equity executive and former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez accused Markey of defending the program only because it was revealed while a fellow Democrat held the White House.
"If this was a Republican president, I guarantee that Congressman Markey ... would be jumping up and down and demanding investigation," said Gomez, who is running his first campaign.
Polls have shown Markey with a solid lead throughout the race, a margin that reflects Massachusetts' heavily Democratic population.
Massachusetts voters go to the polls on June 25 to determine who will take the Senate seat that became available when Obama named John Kerry as secretary of state.
PRESSURE ON GOMEZ
Given his lagging place in the polls, observers say Gomez is under greater pressure to put in a solid debate performance.
"All the pressure is on Gabriel Gomez. He is significantly behind in the polls and he badly needs a game-changer. It's difficult in debates, however, to generate a game-changer," said Jeffrey Berry, professor of political science at Tufts University outside Boston. "If there is a significant outcome of a debate, it's much more likely that it derives from a gaffe than something positive."
Throughout his campaign, Gomez has sought to portray Markey as having become out of touch with Massachusetts voters during his decades in office.
Markey, meanwhile, has sought to tie Gomez closely to the conservative positions of the national Republican party, many of which are unpopular in liberal Massachusetts.
That is a strategy that U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren used effectively in unseating Republican Scott Brown in November. Brown had stunned the state's Democratic party in early 2010 when he beat state Attorney General Martha Coakley to win the seat that became available when Edward Kennedy died.
The seat is one of two in the U.S. Senate up for grabs ahead of next year's midterm elections, with New Jersey holding a special election in October to fill the seat vacated after Senator Frank Lautenberg died.
Last week Obama traveled to Massachusetts to campaign with Markey, as Democrats fight to keep that seat. The party holds a 54-46 edge in the Senate, now that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has named fellow Republican Jeffrey Chiesa as interim Senator to fill Democrat Lautenberg's seat.
In Massachusetts, a former top aide to Democratic Governor Deval Patrick is serving as interim senator until next week's election.
(Editing by David Gregorio and Lisa Shumaker)