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."
"The Gomez campaign is surging and defying conventional wisdom because he's appealing to independents, getting his message out and outworking career politician Ed Markey," Ritter said. "Ed Markey, absent from both the campaign trail and Congress, is hoping outside groups and negative ads will deliver him the seat he feels he's entitled to."
The Gomez aide tried to tamp down expectations for the debate, but said "we are going to make this race a referendum on Washington, we are doing everything we a can to tie Ed Markey to the scandals in Washington, to the dysfunction."
As for Gomez's attempt to distance himself from the national party, his aide said their opponent is "desperate" for the race to be "Barack Obama against George W. Bush" and to portray him as a "crazy right-wing nut" and Markey wants to "pretend he is Barack Obama or Elizabeth Warren."
"Anything but Markey vs. Gomez because he knows he has a pretty good chance of losing if it is Markey vs. Gomez," the aide said.
Massachusetts GOP committeeman Ron Kaufman noted that the debate has some competition tonight because the Boston Bruins face off against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Three of NHL Eastern Conference finals.
"I'd be shocked if the viewership is particularly high," Kaufman said. "Having said that, it's a good opportunity for Gabriel [Gomez] to get to know the voters and vice versa. I think he will do well and it's a good chance for him."
The Markey campaign counters Gomez's argument, saying fundraising by Republicans like Rubio of Florida and McConnell of Kentucky shows he has the "full throated support of right-wing Republicans" in their effort to "control the Senate."
Markey spokesman Andrew Zucker said Gomez will "enact a right-wing agenda that hurts Massachusetts families," noting his policy stances on abortion and gun control.
"There is no hiding or disguising those facts from the people of Massachusetts," Zucker said.
Gomez has said he is "personally pro-life," but won't attempt to change abortion law, calling Roe vs. Wade "settled law," in an interview with the Boston Globe. He accepts exemptions like rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother.
On gun control, he does not support bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, calling them ineffective. He has called for expanded background checks.
Markey, 66, is trying to become a U.S. senator at a time when Congress is wildly unpopular and he has represented his Massachusetts district in Congress for 36 years. Unlike the rest of the country, however, Congress is not as unpopular in the Bay State as it is nationally and people like the president and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., remain popular.
But the president's visit "does represent a bit of nervousness on the part of Democrats," Tufts professor Berry said, noting that he should raise even more than the $600,000 his wife raised when she fundraised for Markey last week.
"Obama is coming primarily to raise money for Markey rather than reassuring Democrats."
Berry added that "at this point in the  Coakley-Brown race, Brown was showing momentum" and he does not see that "at this point" for Gomez. Scott Brown upset Martha Coakley to take the seat that had been held by Ted Kennedy.
The Cook Political Report did move the race last week to a toss-up and Jennifer Duffy, who moved the race, said "special elections are quirky things."
"Do I have more faith in the Democratic candidate turning out their voters? Yes, because they've proven it time and time again," Duffy said, adding that "Gomez has got to get on the air, put more points up and they have to be all bio ads."
As for the debate, Duffy said Gomez is "pretty untested" in this form, but that might not be all bad.
"Markey's biggest liability is that he's been [in Congress] 36 years and when you put the two of them together, side by side, the contrast is fairly striking," Duffy noted. "Markey looks like a guy that has been there 36 years."
Marsh, the Democratic operative, says it's turnout that is essential, but says because of the makeup of the state, "what the Democrats have that the Republicans don't is the Democrats have an ability to turn out voters." But universities are already out for the year, something that could have helped Markey.
Marsh added that Republicans do have the "die hard" voters "that will turn out no matter what" and Democrats are not taking anything for granted.
"The Democratic base has to turn out and enough unenrolled voters have to turn out," Marsh said.
"It's a 'Get Out the Vote' operation on steroids that determines this election for Markey. That's what needs to happen and that's what they are working on."
This story has been updated since it was first posted.