The Massachusetts Senate special election is three weeks away and the president will be swinging in next week to both fundraise and campaign with Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass.
But there's a main event before then: Markey and businessman and former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez get to faceoff in a debate tonight for the first time.
Jeff Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and longtime observer of state politics, says "for Gomez the debate is crucial."
"He has only a little bit of time to make up significant ground and he needs to demonstrate that he is senatorial and not merely someone with a great biography," Berry said.
There's even more at stake for both sides now in the race to replace the seat vacated when John Kerry became secretary of state than just a few days ago. The Monday death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., has created another special election, this time in New Jersey, and it's likely the interim replacement will be a Republican because GOP Gov. Chris Christie will make the appointment.
It's likely that Gomez will get some help from a super PAC created by former Mitt Romney campaign adviser Eric Ferhnstrom, The Committee for a Better Massachusetts, according to two state political sources. They said they expect the super PAC to run advertising in support of Gomez, but stressed the decision had not been made definitively.
Local polling shows Markey ahead, which Berry calls a "significant [lead], but it is not insurmountable" for Gomez.
Massachusetts is a solidly blue state and Gomez has been trying to distance himself from the national Republican Party, giving a speech this week calling himself a "new kind of Republican."
"One of the things I am going to change in Washington is my own party," Gomez, 47, said. "I am fully aware that in a few months from now, some in the Republican Party will consider me to be a pain in the butt. And I am OK with that."
But it's not that easy. His face is plastered on the homepage of the National Republican Senatorial Committee website, and Sen. Marco Rubio's political action committee and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have been fundraising for him, sending letters to their supporters.
Neither the Gomez campaign nor the National Republican Senatorial Committee would comment on exactly how much financial help they will be giving to the campaign, but a Gomez aide said that although they are "not going to match Ed Markey for money," the campaign is "confident they will have the money to be competitive."
National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring said, "Ed Markey has run a stale campaign and has not provided voters a single reason to vote for him, which is why Democrats are so panicked that they had to send both the president and the first lady to Massachusetts to try to save the campaign."
"We believe Gabriel Gomez has a real opportunity to win, and our internal decision making and strategy reflect that," Dayspring said without getting into specifics.
Mary Ann Marsh, a Democratic strategist in Massachusetts, described Gomez's struggle to seem independent in blue Massachusetts.
"If you are a politician straddling a picket fence, it never ends well and that's the position Gomez finds himself in," Marsh said. "To be a Republican or not to be a Republican. What should I do? If Republicans pay for my ads, I'll be a Republican, but when I'm in front of voters, I won't be."
National Democrats were also eager to point out Gomez's delicate dance with Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Deputy Executive Director Matt Canter saying, "Of course national Republicans are providing major support to his candidacy. Gabe Gomez has endorsed policies that put him in lock step with the national Republican agenda and out-of-step with Massachusetts voters."
Gomez spokesman Will Ritter said despite a "deluge of negative ads," the race is "still a tossup."