Could the GOP pull an upset in Mass. senate race?

From left: Greg Orme, Kelli Allman, President Obama and Megan Hughes at Allmanâ??s parentsâ?? house in Honolulu. CBS

BOSTON Republican Senate candidate Gabriel Gomez was out stumping for votes here, surrounded by supporters in a campaign scene one doesn't normally expect to see in odd-numbered years; a reminder yet another special election is underway in Massachusetts.

In the fall of 2009, Scott Brown's campaign ramped up here en route to stunning the political world in a special the following January. Now Republicans are hoping Gomez can repeat the formula. Except this time things are heating up fast, and no one is taking anything for granted.

Democrats came out swinging right away, looking to define Gomez through his private equity background and tax filings, as a counterpoint to the Navy SEAL, fighter pilot background and Latino roots that Gomez would emphasize.

Republicans, seeing opportunity amid the latest scandals and mistrust of Washington, are looking to paint Democratic nominee Ed Markey as a career politico too rooted in D.C. (literally: his residence in the Maryland suburbs is a campaign issue) while Markey came at the Gomez for his positions on gun control. And this week finds Gomez's campaign out with ads questioning the Markey's campaign's mention of the Newtown, Conn., shootings. Security, too, is an issue, as Gomez questions Markey's stances in a state still beginning the healing process from a terror attack.

But another Republican upset won't come easy in this deep-blue state, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by two to one. It might be that anti-Washington sentiment, if it emerges, could hurt the 20-term congressman Markey, but that isn't necessarily a typical view for Massachusetts, where most voters in 2012 said government should be doing more, not less. The opening here is more likely from this being a special election - and one in June, moreover - with potentially varied and unpredictable turnout.

In a November general election when most of the electorate comes to the polls, those lopsided partisan numbers manifest themselves in full, as Scott Brown found out when he ran for re-election in 2012 and lost. But the summertime brings added considerations for voters who might otherwise mean to engage: kids out of school; people away; less media attention to keep it all top of mind. Adding to the uncertainty, the bulk of the voting here will be done traditionally at the ballot box, as opposed to by mail or absentee as in some other states, so neither the campaigns nor the polls can incorporate many "banked" votes that they're certain of in advance.

The overall impression from the polls is that Gomez-Markey is a competitive race, with Gomez possibly within single digits, but those polls have varied. That uncertainty isn't surprising, given that we're still a few weeks out. It isn't likely everyone has really tuned in to the race this early, and all those turnout questions can have an impact on the polling numbers too; it isn't always easy for voters - or their pollsters - to accurately gauge intent or future schedules in a race like this.

Republicans of course hope that that the more habitual and motivated voters hold more sway against the overall profile of the electorate, perhaps getting an enthusiasm boost from the scandals in D.C., which polls show have Republicans nationally paying more attention. But Markey's long tenure as a congressman and heavy party support gives his camp access to the kind of organizations - the door knockers and phone banks, canvassers, the lists of who the reliable base vote is - that matter, and it is fresh off that 2012 Senate race.

To win, Gomez needs the kind of electoral formula Brown pulled off in 2009, though this time he won't have the element of surprise. He'd have to keep it close enough in Boston, sway the working-class voters beyond, and hope for lopsided turnout.

When Brown won his special election, he did better in the Boston area than Republicans typically do - particularly in the middle-class towns of its closer-in suburbs. Part of this looked to be the swing of independent-leaning Democrats, and part of it was vote margins that benefited him when Democrats didn't turn out in force. He then ran up the score in the areas further out from Boston that can have Republican leanings, from Concord out toward Worcester and down to New Bedford and the Cape; the latter cast a slightly larger share of the votes than it often does.

All told, it was a story of Republicans maxing out where they could, and Democrats a little lackluster. When the larger electorate showed up in 2012 for the Brown-Warren race, those outer areas were a lot less red, as the map reverted back to what we typically see in a statewide Massachusetts race.

In places like this one that have tilted partisan profiles, even in special elections the partisan leanings usually hold, so in this case Democrats would be favored, even if narrowly. But it's way too soon to rule this out, either, and there's a lot of time to go, especially given the late attention usually given to a special, and with campaigns trading blows each day. Call this lean Democrat for now, but hardly certain, especially for this state. Their debate comes up in a couple of weeks.

Joe Williams of Harvard University contributed to this report

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    Anthony Salvanto is CBS News elections director

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