By Scott Malone
NEEDHAM, Massachusetts (Reuters) - The five candidates running for Massachusetts' open seat in the U.S. Senate sparred on social issues on Wednesday, staking out opposing views on abortion and gay marriage in the first debate to feature candidates from both parties.
But even those who took more conservative stances tried to draw a line between their personal beliefs and existing laws, in a nod to the liberal views of many of the New England state's voters.
On the Republican side, former Boston U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan was the one candidate to express opposition both to abortion and gay marriage - the latter issue the topic of Supreme Court arguments on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Massachusetts in 2003 became the first U.S. state to legalize gay marriage.
On the Democratic side, U.S. Representative Stephen Lynch said he opposed abortion, though he said he regarded the Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized it, as "established law" not likely to be overturned.
"Attacking Roe v. Wade won't make abortions go away, it'll just change the setting ... to one that is more dangerous for women," said Lynch.
Early polls show Lynch trailing fellow Democratic Representative Edward Markey among decided voters, though they also show that a large portion of the electorate has not yet determined how they will vote in the April 30 primary and June 25 special election to fill the seat formerly held by Secretary of State John Kerry, a Democrat.
Markey, who also holds a lead over Republican contenders in early polls, said that access to abortion "has to be protected at all costs."
Sullivan's Republican rivals, Daniel Winslow, a state representative, and Gabriel Gomez, a private equity executive, said they supported gay rights, positions at odds with many members of their party. Gomez opposes abortion rights, while Winslow supports them.
"If two people are in love they should be able to get married. I support repealing DOMA," said Gomez, in reference to the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, a law signed by former President Bill Clinton that prevented same-sex couples from obtaining federal benefits.
Sullivan called himself a "traditionalist" on marriage, telling reporters after the debate "marriage is between one man and one woman."
However, noting that he believed states should determine laws regarding marriage, he said he also supported the repeal of DOMA, adding that he believed that same-sex couples married in Massachusetts should enjoy "all the same benefits" as heterosexual couples.
Winslow supported both gay marriage and abortion.
"I am a big-tent Republican when it comes to social issues," he said, referring to party members who have an inclusive view. "Roe v. Wade is the settled law of the United States and I support a women's right to choose."
One-third of the Senate is up for re-election in 2014. The Republicans now have 45 Senate seats, the Democrats 53, and there are two independents.
Massachusetts' Democratic Governor Deval Patrick in January named his former chief of staff, William "Mo" Cowan, to serve as interim senator until the election. Cowan is not running in the special election.
(This story has been corrected to show Gomez opposes abortion)
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Philip Barbara)