BOSTON – Republican Gabriel Gomez and Democrat Edward Markey clashed in their first debate in Massachusetts’ special U.S. Senate election, sparring on abortion, Hillary Clinton, national security and guns.
One of the fiercest exchanges came at the very end of the one-hour debate Wednesday.
Asked if he could support a law requiring a woman to wait 24 hours and review information about the development of a fetus before having an abortion, Gomez first said that while he’s personally ‘‘pro-life’’ he isn’t interested in changing abortion law.
Gomez then suggested he could support the waiting period.
‘‘I think asking somebody to wait 24 hours before they can actually go have an abortion is not asking a lot,’’ he said.
Markey, a member of the U.S. House since 1976, described himself as ‘‘pro-choice’’ and said ‘‘the decision should be between the woman and her physician.’’
‘‘That’s it. The woman makes the decision, not some law that’s imposed by politicians,’’ Markey said.
Gomez also said he could vote for a Supreme Court nominee who opposes abortion.
‘‘If the judge comes in front of me and they follow the Constitution and they’re ethical and they’re pro-choice and they've done a good job. I'll vote for them. If they’re pro-life, I'll vote for them,’’ he said. ‘‘There should be no litmus test.’’
‘‘I have a litmus test. I would not vote for a Supreme Court justice who would overturn Roe v. Wade,’’ he said.
A spokesman for Gomez later tried to clarify the candidate’s remarks, saying he would not push for or support a federal law calling for a 24-hour waiting period for abortion.
The candidates also had a sharp exchange over congressional hearings into the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya and Massachusetts native Glen Doherty, who was working as a private security contractor.
‘‘We have to make sure (the investigation) just doesn’t turn into another Republican circus trying to go after (former Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton to prevent her from being the Democratic nominee in 2016,’’ Markey said.
Gomez, a businessman and former Navy SEAL, suggested Markey and other Democrats were more concerned about Clinton’s future than getting to the truth, calling it ‘‘another great example of putting politics and partisanship before the people.’’
‘‘You are the one politicizing this,’’ Markey shot back.
Gomez also called for U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to resign and for an independent investigator to look into the seizure of phone records from Associated Press journalists.
Markey stopped short of calling for Holder’s resignation, though he agreed the seizure of reporters’ records was wrong.
The two differed on U.S. policy in the ongoing conflict in Syria, with Gomez calling for a more aggressive approach.
‘‘At a minimum ... we should have a no-fly zone (over Syria) and we should be supplying aid to the rebel group that we identify that’s going to eventually take over,’’ Gomez said.
But Markey cautioned against any unilateral action by the U.S., including a no-fly zone or arming rebels that could lead to unintended consequences without consensus from allies.
‘‘If it’s done wrong it could lead to military escalation on the ground that could pull in the United States of America,’’ Markey warned.
After the debate, Gomez said he would try to convince U.S. allies to support a no-fly zone but would urge the U.S. to go forward even without a U.N. resolution.
The two also staked out different positions on the issue of guns.
Markey criticized Gomez for opposing a ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines. Gomez said he supported a recent, bipartisan Senate proposal that would have mandated wider background checks for gun sales.
Throughout the debate Gomez made frequent references to Markey’s long tenure in Congress, while Markey pointed to support Gomez has received from conservative Republicans like Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
‘‘They want Mr. Gomez down there to help them get the majority that will ultimately further the gridlock that they have fostered over the last generation,’’ Markey said.
‘‘Congressman, if you want to run against Newt Gingrich, or George W. Bush, or even Gerald Ford who was president when you were down there for the first time, you should have run against them,’’ Gomez retorted.
Gomez is getting a visit from New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani on Thursday while President Barack Obama is stumping for Markey next week.
Markey and Gomez are scheduled to debate in western Massachusetts on June 11 and again in Boston on June 18.
The election is June 25.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.