BOSTON — It's a small group of potential voters but one that Gabriel Gomez is clearly at ease with — about two dozen people who gathered in a recreation room at the Chelsea Soldiers Home to hear a fellow veteran discuss his uphill fight to become the next U.S. senator from Massachusetts.
Gomez, wearing his trademark olive green bomber jacket, chats with the vets about the type of aircraft he piloted before becoming a Navy SEAL and the need to improve health care for service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
He describes his hectic campaign schedule in military terms: "Reveille was 05:00 for me today," he explains. And his quest to defeat Democratic U.S. Rep. Edward Markey in the June 25 special election often sounds more like a military endeavor.
"Where we come from, you're mission focused," he tells the group. "You accomplish your mission, and that's what you're focused on."
He continues: "You don't have 37 years to accomplish a mission." It's a dig at Markey's long tenure in Congress and a reminder of his own pledge to serve no more than two full terms if elected.
While Gomez, 47, has made his military background a cornerstone of the campaign, he'll need more than the support of veterans to win an election in a state where Republicans — with the notable exception of former Sen. Scott Brown in a 2010 special election to succeed the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy — have fared poorly in recent years.
A political unknown before entering the race to succeed John Kerry, who resigned to become secretary of state, Gomez won a low-key Republican primary over two opponents April 30 but now faces a better financed candidate with the state's formidable Democratic machine on his side.
Gomez, who at times seems to campaign as much against his own party as the Democrats, has sought to position himself as a socially moderate, fiscally conservative alternative to Markey, whom he holds up as a symbol for an entrenched and out-of-touch Washington political establishment.
But Markey has dismissed his opponent's attempts to distance himself from the national GOP, claiming he shares many of the same views as conservative Republicans on issues such as gun control, taxes, Social Security and abortion.
On the latter, Gomez, a Catholic, has explained that he is "pro-life" by faith but has no intention of changing current abortion laws. He hasn't ruled out, however, voting for a U.S. Supreme Court nominee who opposes the landmark Roe. v. Wade decision.
The son of Colombian immigrants, Gomez was born in Los Angeles and was a toddler when his family moved to Washington state, where his father worked as a salesman for a company that sold hops.
Gomez, who did not learn to speak English until kindergarten, enjoys conversing in Spanish with Latino residents on the campaign trail. He often weaves Spanish into speeches and briefly spoke Spanish in a recent debate with Markey in Springfield.
"I saw how this country embraced my parents and gave them a chance at the dream, gave me a chance at the dream," Gomez said during an interview with The Associated Press earlier in the campaign.
Gomez attended the U.S. Naval Academy and served in the Navy for nine years, first as a pilot before pursuing his dream to join the elite SEAL team. It was a risk because Gomez knew he wouldn't be able to return to pilot status.
"I didn't want to have any regrets in life ... and I really had a strong desire to go be a SEAL," he said.
Gomez was stationed in South America, where he met his wife, Sarah, who was working in the West Indies as a Peace Corps volunteer. The couple would later settle in Cohasset and raise four children, the oldest of whom is now 13.
After leaving the military, Gomez attended Harvard Business School and launched a lucrative career with the private equity firm Advent International.
While he has touted his business experience, his time at Advent has also been a source of controversy in the campaign as he has come under withering attack from Democrats for revealing little about his clients in financial disclosure forms. He has said that during the time period covered by the forms, he didn't directly provide services to Advent's portfolio companies.
Gomez — whose only prior foray into politics was an unsuccessful run for selectman in 2003 — has reacted angrily to campaign ads run by his opponent. He's called Markey "dirty" and once described him as "pond scum."
Markey said the ads were only intended to highlight differences on issues and not attack Gomez personally. Gomez rejects any suggestion of being thin-skinned but concedes that the aggressive tone of the campaign might have caught him off-guard.
"I think the one thing that has surprised me and maybe shouldn't have surprised me is the level of ... misleading and dishonest ads that are out there, mischaracterizations of my positions," he said.