By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - Voters in Massachusetts on Tuesday go to the polls to pick the Democratic and Republican contenders for the state's open seat in the U.S. Senate, after campaigns that were briefly suspended by the Boston Marathon bombings.
All five candidates, two Democrats and three Republicans, took several days off campaigning after the April 15 attacks, which killed three people and injured 264 others, but they roared back into a more spirited debate last week.
"The terrorist attack really focused people's attention elsewhere," said Peter Ubertaccio, professor of political science at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts. "We're looking at some very low turnout."
About 10 percent fewer absentee ballots, which can be a barometer of interest, have been requested by voters in each party than in a special Senate election primary in 2009, according to Brian McNiff, a spokesman for Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin.
The seat became available when President Barack Obama said in December that he planned to name John Kerry the U.S. Secretary of State. Democrat Kerry had served as U.S. Senator from Massachusetts since 1985.
Democratic Representative Ed Markey, who was first to enter the race, leads in opinion polls both against his party rival and all three Republicans. On the Democratic side, Markey faces fellow U.S. Congressman Stephen Lynch.
The Republican candidates are former U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan, private equity executive and former Navy SEAL Gabriel Gomez and State Representative Daniel Winslow.
The two party primary winners will contest a special election on June 25.
Polls of Democratic voters in March and April showed Markey with a solid lead over Lynch. The Republican race has been more fluid, with Sullivan, one of the better-known candidates leading in a March poll by WBUR/MassInc Polling but the newcomer Gomez edging him out in an April poll by Western New England University.
All three polls showed the Democratic candidates handily beating their Republican rivals in theoretical one-on-one general election matchups.
One result that could shake things up would be a win by Gomez, a newcomer to politics who would be likely to focus a general election campaign on unregistered voters and Democrats who were unimpressed with their candidate, Ubertaccio said.
"We've proceeded along with the presumption that Sullivan is the front runner in the Republican party," said Ubertaccio, the Stonehill College political science professor.
However, the memory of January 2010 when Republican Scott Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley in the special election, means Democrats will take any challenger seriously. The seat was made vacant by the death in August 2009 of Edward M. Kennedy of the Democratic Party who had served as U.S. Senator since 1962.
"The Republican candidate, whoever it is, faces a huge uphill battle going into the general election," Ubertaccio said. "Either Markey or Lynch, and more importantly the Democratic party are not going to be caught snoozing for a second special election."
After maintaining a cordial detente for much of their campaign, Lynch last week turned up the heat on front runner Markey, criticizing his record on security.
Lynch noted in a debate in Springfield that his party rival had voted against the joint terrorism task force, the investigative team lead by the Federal Bureau of Investigation that ran the marathon bombing probe and caught two suspects.
Markey, meanwhile, has pushed back on Lynch's record on social issues, including his vote against the 2010 U.S. health care reform law that Lynch argued was flawed.
Among the Republicans, Sullivan has sought to play up his record on security -- he helped prosecute shoe bomber Richard Reid, who is serving a life sentence for trying to blow up a plane over the Atlantic in December 2001.
Gomez, the son of Colombian immigrants whose first language was Spanish, has campaigned on his outsider status. This is his first run for office, though he drew criticism from rivals for asking Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, to appoint him to the job on an interim basis.
Winslow, who had also served in the administration of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, has cast himself as a legislator with practical experience.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Grant McCool)