By Scott Malone
EASTON, Massachusetts (Reuters) - The three Republican contenders for Massachusetts open U.S. Senate seat largely agreed on policy issues in their first debate on Tuesday, including opposing any ban on the sale of assault rifles.
Former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan, state Representative Daniel Winslow and private equity executive and former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez largely agreed on the policy questions in their first match-up before the April 30 primary.
All three said they opposed any ban on assault rifles, the sort of weapon used in the December massacre at a Connecticut primary school.
"The fact of the matter is that people like to think that bans are effective. They are completely ineffective. I've seen it form my experience," said Sullivan, who a recent University of Massachusetts Lowell-Boston Herald poll showed as leading the Republican field. "Reducing gun violence is not about taking guns out of the hands of citizens ... it's about getting them out of the hands of problem persons."
The trio face an uphill battle in liberal-leaning Massachusetts, where polls show Democrats with a strong lead ahead of the June 25 special election for the seat, which became available when John Kerry was named secretary of state.
Gomez, a political newcomer, said that senators should be limited to two six-year terms in office.
"The president is term-limited, Congress should be term-limited, senators should be term-limited," Gomez said in the forum at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, about 30 miles south of Boston.
Sullivan and Winslow agreed with that idea.
All three said they would not evaluate potential nominees to the Supreme Court based on the nominee's opinion of abortion rights.
"Judges shouldn't have agendas other than to follow the Constitution, follow the law," said Winslow, who served as an adviser to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney on judicial appointments.
In the state's last special Senate election three years ago, Republican Scott Brown stunned the liberal establishment by winning the seat that liberal lion Edward M. Kennedy held for almost a half-century.
But in this match up, all three Republicans trail U.S. Representative Edward Markey, a Democrat, who also holds a lead over fellow Democratic Congressman Stephen Lynch, according to last week's UMass-Herald poll.
Pollsters caution that all five candidates had relatively low name recognition among likely voters, meaning that the lead could easily change.
This time, a Republican victory could help the party's effort to retake a majority in the Senate, where it holds 45 seats. Democrats have 53 seats, and there are two independents.
In January, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick named his former chief of staff, William Cowan, as interim senator. Cowan is not running for the seat.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Jan Paschal, Eric Walsh and Lisa Shumaker)