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Debate analysis: Something slightly askew in first debate

During their first turns before the camera at Wednesday night’s debate, both Gabriel Gomez and Ed Markey sported ties slightly but noticeably crooked.

It would not be the last moment of the evening when things seemed slightly askew.

Neither Gomez nor Markey demonstrated himself as a forceful, effective debater, in line with expectations for many who observed the Republican and Democratic primary debates.

During a discussion on whether the United States should intervene in Syria, Gomez confused “terrorist group’’ and “rebel group.’’

During a discussion on abortion, Gomez repeated a handful of times variations of the assertion that “I’m not going down there to change any laws. I won’t spend a single moment of any day to change any laws.’’ In the context, Gomez’s meaning was clear, but for an insurgent candidate whose strongest argument is change, it was a curious choice of words.

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Markey, too, dropped a series of clunky phrases. “We’re not just the Bay State, we’re the ‘brain state’,’’ he said, at one point, in keeping with his campaign trail habit of unusual plays on words.

And he appeared to lend a rare Democratic voice of support to House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Representative Darrell Issa, a California conservative, whose investigation of the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups has been a burr for the administration. “Use the subpoena power,’’ Markey said — a line unlikely to please President Obama, scheduled to stump for Markey in Boston next Wednesday.

And at one point, the debate devolved into a heated exchange about Hillary Clinton and the 2016 presidential race. Gomez ripped Markey for asserting that congressional Republicans are using their investigation of the administration’s response to last year’s terrorist attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi to inflict political damage on the former secretary of state.

Gomez came equipped with a battery of one-liners that he deployed early and often. The pat words of thanks to the debate’s hosts – WBZ and the Globe – were scarcely out of his mouth before he turned to Markey, saying, “After 37 years in D.C., welcome back to Boston.’’

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The duration of Markey’s tenure in the capital was Gomez’s primary line of attack, to which he repeatedly pivoted during the hour-long session. After deriding the Beltway’s “overbearing, arrogant attitude,’’ Gomez told Markey, “You are basically Washington D.C. I’m sorry, sir, but you are.’’

But when Gomez challenged Markey to name legislation he had authored, the 37-year congressman was ready. Improved online access for the deaf and blind, cargo screening for passenger planes and seagoing tankers, legislation aimed at assisting Alzheimer’s patients.

Markey also, unsurprisingly, focused on the hot-button issues most important to his liberal base, which helped him secure his primary victory over the more moderate Representative Stephen F. Lynch.

In his opening statement on Wednesday, the Malden Democrat went right after Gomez’s opposition to an assault weapons ban and to tax hikes on high-income earners, and support for a Social Security cost of living formula change that President Obama has backed but many Democrats reject.

Markey aides crowed after the debate that nearly 10 of the debate’s earliest minutes dwelled on gun control and that much its closing segment centered on abortion rights. During the final stretch, Markey pointed out that Edward Kennedy, John Kerry, Elizabeth Warren and he all shared a litmus test on Supreme Court justices, that they would not vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. Gomez does not.

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“I think it’s the past, that he represents, versus the future, that I represent,’’ Markey, 66, told reporters after the debate.

Gomez tripped over the abortion question in more than awkward diction. Despite his insistence that he would not change any laws on the issue, he said he supports a 24-hour waiting period for abortion, which would mark a significant change.

Gomez said, ‘‘I think asking somebody to wait 24 hours, before they can actually go have an abortion, is not asking a lot.’’

Markey has led Gomez in public polling, and enjoys the advantage inherent to Massachusetts Democrats running statewide: a far superior voter-turnout operation honed in recent years by a string of statewide elections. That apparatus has acquired a grim edge in recent years from the memory, still bothersome to Democratic leaders, of Scott Brown’s out-of-nowhere victory over Attorney General Martha Coakley in another Senate special election. If he wins, Markey will become the most recent beneficiary of that infrastructural supremacy.

By running as an unapologetic progressive, Markey appears to be betting that Democratic voters will stick with him and that Gomez will not be able to cobble together a sufficient coalition of independent voters.

“You are the most hyper-partisan congressman in the last 40 years,’’ Gomez scolded Markey during the debate.

Gomez has vowed to confine himself to two terms, serve as a new kind of Republican who would forge compromises on immigration, gun control, and tax reform — the very model of a non-partisan senator. His challenge against Markey so far has been convincing voters that non-partisan is what they want. Markey is betting it’s not.

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