(CNN) – Three weeks before voters choose a new U.S. senator in Massachusetts, the rival candidates made their first high profile attempt to discredit each other in a televised debate Wednesday.
At stake is the U.S. Senate seat vacated earlier this year when Sen. John Kerry stepped down to become secretary of state. Voters will choose between longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Ed Markey and Republican businessman Gabriel Gomez in the June 25th special election.
The race, until now, has been played out in campaign events and on television ads that have turned nasty in the final stretch. Those jabs continued Wednesday when the rivals met for their first face-to-face debate. Gomez immediately went after Markey's long record in Washington.
"After 37 years in Washington, D.C., welcome back to Boston," Gomez, a former Navy SEAL, said to kick things off. He was responding to a question about whether the candidates' characters should play an important factor in the race.
Markey answered the question by focusing on tax fairness, claiming his rival favored bigger tax breaks for billionaires.
Markey's long tenure in Washington also arose during a question and answer session on the controversies currently enveloping the capital. The Democrat called for the firing of any IRS employee who targeted conservative groups applying for tax exempt status, but his rival used the scandal to paint the entire federal government as flawed.
"D.C. is broken,” Gomez said. “You are basically Washington, D.C. I’m sorry sir, but you are.” He also called for the resignation of Attorney General Eric Holder, embroiled in a scandal over seizing journalists' phone records.
Gun control - an issue that's played out in televisions ads in the Massachusetts Senate contest - also arose during Wednesday's square off. Markey vowed to "fight the NRA" if elected to the upper chamber, while Gomez renewed his support for expanding background checks on gun sales.
Both rebuffed claims of being overly partisan - Markey deemed Gomez "the same old stale" type of Republican that lost last year's presidential race, while Gomez pointed to his rival's voting record in Congress, saying Markey had voted along party lines 99% of the time.
A poll released Tuesday by New England College showed 52% of registered voters in the Bay State support Markey, who's serving his twentieth term in the U.S. House as the representative of Massachusetts' 5th Congressional District.
Gomez, a private equity investor, was at 40% in the survey. Another 8% said they were still unsure of who they'll support in the June 25th special election.
Polling in Massachusetts has consistently given Markey the edge, though the margins have varied. A 7 News/Suffolk University survey from early May gave Markey a seventeen-point advantage, while other poll showed a much tighter contest.