In their second GOP primary debate in two nights in the Senate special election, state Representative Daniel Winslow and former US attorney Michael Sullivan traded barbs while at times steering clear of the third Republican candidate, former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez.
The tone of the debate at City Stage and Symphony Hall in Springfield was markedly different from Wednesday’s forum in Needham, which the three largely used to introduce themselves and their platforms to voters.
But Sullivan and Winslow, two longtime fixtures in the state GOP, took the gloves off on Thursday, lobbing accusations over taxes and abortion.
Winslow fired the opening salvo early in the debate, when he said that Sullivan is opposed to closing tax loopholes for corporations and groups such as the wind power and film industries.
“This is the difference between Mike Sullivan and me,” Winslow said. “I propose to cut the special loopholes in our tax rate.”
Sullivan fired back, saying that he supported efforts to curb subsidies for large banks. He added that he would not necessarily oppose closing corporate loopholes, as long as such measures were revenue neutral. He also called into question Winslow’s commitment to fiscal restraint.
“He calls himself a fiscal conservative, but he finds very creative ways to raise taxes,” Sullivan said, citing Winslow’s support in the Legislature for a failed proposal to “put tolls on other parts of the highway system in Massachusetts.”
Winslow countered by citing his recent endorsement from antitax activist Barbara Anderson.
Gomez declined to weigh in on the skirmish.
“I’ll let these two gentlemen discuss their own views,” he said. “I’m not here to bash the Republican Party. If you want to talk about Congressman Markey and Congressman Lynch and their views, I’ll do that.”
The sharpest exchange between Sullivan and Winslow came on the question of abortion, when Winslow, an avowed “Big Tent Republican” who favors abortion rights, said that Sullivan has indicated support for the national GOP’s platform of opposing abortion in all circumstances.
“Dan, you’ve known me for a long time, and quite honestly I’m disappointed that you would essentially claim that I said something that I haven’t said,” Sullivan said. “It’s sad that essentially you’re trying to find opportunities to divide.”
But Winslow persisted, saying that Sullivan declined in two recent public settings to say whether he agrees with the national platform.
Gomez, for his part, stayed largely out of the fray thoughout the one-hour matchup, reiterating his intention to bring a political outsider’s perspective to Washington and advocate for pro-business policies to jump-start the economy.
He did, however, tangle at one point with Winslow, who chided Gomez for writing in a letter to Governor Deval Patrick that he supported the immigration policies of President Obama. Gomez at the time was seeking the interim appointment to fill the Senate seat.
“Maybe a slick lawyer might have written that a little bit differently,” Gomez said to Winslow, the former chief legal counsel to Governor Mitt Romney. “What I meant by that letter was simply that I supported some of [Obama’s] positions.”
The sharp words aside, the three candidates staked out similar positions on many issues Thursday night.
While offering few specifics, each candidate voiced support for overhauling Social Security and Medicare while preserving the benefit structure for seniors currently collecting benefits.
As on Wednesday night, they agreed on the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and criticized the Affordable Care Act, though only Gomez and Sullivan said they would vote to repeal the health law if given the opportunity in the Senate.
Winslow instead said he would support granting waivers to states like Massachusetts that have reached a “level of excellence” in health care coverage.
The back-to-back debates came after a poll released by WBUR-FM this week showed Sullivan leading his two GOP rivals with 28 percent of support.
But even among likely Republican voters, 60 percent had not heard of Winslow, 47 had not heard of Gomez, and 34 percent did not know Sullivan.
The primary elections are slated for April 30.
The winner of the GOP matchup will face either Congressmen Stephen F. Lynch or Edward J. Markey, who are seeking the Democratic nomination. The general election is scheduled for June 25.