Three GOP candidates spar in fiery debate

The three Republican candidates for the state’s open Senate seat sparred tonight in a fiery debate. Former US attorney Michael J. Sullivan and state Representative Daniel B. Winslow were particularly intense in their criticism of each other, repeatedly drawing contrasts on biography and policy. At one point during the debate, Winslow and Sullivan engaged in a heated exchange, each charging that the other is a lobbyist.

Private equity investor and former Navy SEAL Gabriel E. Gomez, the third GOP candidate, tangled with his competitors as well, but to a much lesser extent. He repeatedly emphasized his non-political background and decried the sharp back-and-forth as politics as usual.

The debate, sponsored by WBZ and the Globe, was aired on WBZ-TV and livestreamed on boston.com, bostonglobe.com, and cbsboston.com.

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The marquee exchange of the evening was about the bipartisan bill, winding its way through the US Senate today, which would increase required background checks for gun sales. Winslow and Gomez said they would vote for the Senate compromise. Sullivan hedged. Despite intense questioning from Winslow, Sullivan, who served as acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives during the administration of President George W. Bush, never answered the question of how he would vote on the bill. However, he said the bill doesn’t address the problem of “trying to keep guns out of the hands of the adjudicated mentally ill.”

In an availability after the debate, Winslow took aim at Sullivan again. “I’ve been to a lot of debates. I’ve never seen a candidate duck a question the way Mike Sullivan ducked a question today,” he said.

Other topics addressed in the hour-long forum included President Obama’s proposed budget, reform of entitlement programs, Congressional dysfunction and immigration reform. A point of contention between Sullivan and Gomez was whether there should be a route for illegal immigrants currently in this country to gain citizenship. Gomez aligned himself with Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who is working on a compromise plan with other senators that is likely to include a so-called “path to citizenship.” Sullivan said he’s not in favor “of amnesty.” Both emphasized securing the border.

The GOP match tonight was a marked contrast from a sober and almost sleepy debate on Monday in Lowell between the two Democratic contenders for the Senate seat, Rep. Stephen F. Lynch of South Boston and Rep. Edward J. Markey of Malden.

Both the Democratic and Republican primary elections will be held on April 30. The general election is slated for June 25. The Senate seat became vacant after the resignation of Democrat John Kerry to become Secretary of State.