By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - The Republican underdog fighting for Massachusetts' open U.S. Senate seat in a Tuesday debate attacked his rival, a veteran Democratic congressman, over recently revealed programs in which federal agencies track Americans' use of phones and the Internet.
Republican Gabriel Gomez, who is trailing in polls ahead of next week's election, said that if the White House were in his party's hands, rival Edward Markey would be far less tolerant of the National Security Agency monitoring the communications of U.S. citizens in programs aimed at preventing attacks.
The administration of President Barack Obama, a Democrat, has defended the programs as limited and necessary for national security. Earlier on Tuesday the head of the NSA told a congressional panel that surveillance had disrupted more than 50 possible attacks.
"If this was a Republican president, I guarantee that Congressman Markey ... would be jumping up and down and demanding investigation," said Gomez, a private equity executive and former Navy SEAL who is running his first campaign.
Markey, who was first elected to Congress in 1976, said domestic surveillance needs to be limited to ensure "that innocent Americans don't have their privacy compromised" but defended the idea as necessary for national security.
"There are terrorists out there, there are criminals out there who want to hurt our country," Markey said.
Gomez's arguments could resonate with independent voters but likely would not tip the balance heading into next Tuesday's special election, one political analyst said. Polls show Markey with a strong lead overall, largely due to strong support from Democratic voters, who greatly outnumber Republicans and independents in Massachusetts.
"A lot of people, neutral observers, believe that had some of these revelations come out under the previous administration that Democrats would want their hide," said Peter Ubertaccio, chairman of the political science department at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts. "If the administration were different, I have a feeling he might be right, Markey would be taking the lead in attacking the White House. But foreign policy issues, even this kind of issue, don't tend to move voters."
The seat is one of two up for grabs in the U.S. Senate, where Democrats currently hold a 54-46 majority, ahead of next year's midterm elections. A win for Republicans could give the momentum in their bid to retake control of the chamber.
The attack played to Gomez' strategy of trying to portray Markey as part of a highly partisan Washington culture that has brought legislative gridlock.
Markey, meanwhile, has sought to tie Gomez closely to the conservative positions of the national Republican Party, many of which are unpopular in liberal Massachusetts.
That is a strategy that U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren used effectively in unseating Republican Scott Brown in November. Brown had stunned the state's Democratic Party in early 2010 when he beat state Attorney General Martha Coakley to win the seat that became available when Edward Kennedy died.
The next Senate contest comes up in New Jersey, which will hold a special election in October to fill the seat vacated after Senator Frank Lautenberg died. That state's governor, Chris Christie, has named fellow Republican Jeffrey Chiesa as interim senator to fill Democrat Lautenberg's seat.
In Massachusetts, William Cowan, a former top aide to Democratic Governor Deval Patrick, is serving as interim senator until next week's election.
(Editing by David Gregorio, Lisa Shumaker and Bill Trott)