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Former Romney aides fight it out in special election

Given that Democrats are favored to win the June 25 special general election in Massachusetts to fill the state’s vacant U.S. Senate seat, the political world has focused more on Tuesday’s Democratic primary between Reps. Ed Markey and Stephen Lynch.

But don’t lose sight on the Republican primary -- not only because Republicans can win statewide office in Massachusetts (just ask Mitt Romney and Scott Brown), but also because the GOP race features a battle of former Romney aides.

These aides have fanned themselves out and are vigorously -- and, at times, viciously -- swatting at each other in support of their chosen candidates: former US Attorney Mike Sullivan, State Representative Dan Winslow, and Navy SEAL-turned-businessman Gabriel Gomez

A recent Western New England University poll -- conducted during a period of time before and after last week's Boston bombings -- found Gomez in the lead at 33 percent among likely Republican voters, Sullivan at 27 percent, and Winslow far behind at 9 percent. Gomez is far ahead in the money race (raising about $600,000 for the period ending April 10), and Winslow has racked up endorsements from the Boston Globe and Boston Herald.

Sullivan is being advised by Beth Myers and Peter Flaherty, two extremely loyal Romney insiders. Both served under the former GOP presidential nominee during his time as governor of Massachusetts -- Myers was his chief of staff and Flaherty was deputy chief of staff. They both remained in Romney's close inner circle during his presidential bids in 2008 and 2012.

Sullivan served as head of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms from 2006-2009 under George W. Bush, and currently serves as a partner in former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s Boston law firm. On Saturday, he released a statement calling for Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s citizenship to be revoked, compared with his GOP rivals who wants Tsarnaev treated as an enemy combatant.

Winslow is a former Romney staffer himself -- he says he was the third hire after Romney became governor in 2002, serving as the governor’s chief legal counsel for two years.  (He now holds former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown's old seat in the state Senate.)  Winslow's communications director, Charlie Pearce, worked for the Romney presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012, and his campaign manager, Bobby Talbot, was a Florida aide for the Romney campaign last year.

Winslow is viewed as less conservative than his opponents, and he drew attention to his support for marriage equality by recently filing a query with the Federal Election Commission as to how to file campaign donations made by legally married same-sex couples.

Gomez, meanwhile, has the most Romney staffers on his payroll, and he’s perhaps most Romney-esque in his messaging -- constantly emphasizing he’s not a “career politician” and referring to his (lucrative) time in the private sector. His campaign is being run by Jill  Neunaber, who worked for Romney's 2012 effort in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Romney’s former communications director, Gail Gitcho, serves as senior advisor to Gomez; former Director of Operations Will Ritter is the press secretary; former aide Ryan Coleman is political director; and former Director of Digital Rapid Response Lenny Alcivar is communications director. Additionally, Bradley D. Crate, chief financial officer for the campaign, and Kerry Healey, Romney’s former lieutenant governor, also are on board, as well as a smattering of other advance team and Ann Romney aides are also in the mix.  Former Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom is advising the political action committee supporting Gomez.

Neunaber believes that her new boss shares some similarities with her old one. "I think they both run an organization similarly -- they pay close attention to details, they're numbers guys, they want to see how you're moving the needle on a daily basis."

But these former aides have also battled over one of Romney’s biggest legacy: his Massachusetts health-care law.

In a recent debate, Sullivan was asked about addressing entitlements within President Obama's newly proposed budget plan. He quickly pivoted from discussing the costs of Medicare to a new hit on Winslow -- tying his opponent to Romney’s health law, pejoratively referred to as “RomneyCare”.

"Dan essentially has talked previously with support in regard to the Massachusetts health-care program. I understood he actually worked on it before he left," Sullivan said.  "I would not use that as a model, Dan, in terms of a national health-care program. I would repeal ObamaCare. This is a big difference between Dan Winslow and myself. He essentially believes that ObamaCare should stay enforced."

Winslow immediately shot back that he had nothing to do with Romney's health-care law.  "I didn't have a hand in the drafting of RomneyCare... On ObamaCare, if there's a vote to repeal, of course I would vote to repeal."

Later, Winslow explained to NBC News that, having served under Romney for only the first two years of his term as governor, he had "zero" to do with the state health-care law.  "In the moment, I was just so stunned that Mike was throwing Obama talking points at me." 

But Winslow spokesman Charlie Pearce says he's confounded as to why Sullivan would be so misguided on the issue, given Sullivan’s connection to Myers and Flaherty.

"If Beth and Peter were behind that attack, they'd be savaging their own record," says Pearce.

Gomez did not comment on the exchange, and one of his staffers didn’t think the connection between “RomneyCare” and Winslow was particularly ill-conceived. "I think he was really trying to make a statement about Winslow running around the state constantly saying that he did things single handedly that Romney really did,” said the aide. “Sullivan was trying to hold his feet to the fire, calling his bluff."

Sullivan's campaign declined to make anyone available for comment on the issue, despite repeated requests.

Even given this back-and-forth over Massachusetts’ health-care law, there seems to be an overall feeling of camaraderie among the three campaigns. Winslow tells NBC that the bonds shared between the staffers extend long beyond this moment in time.  "This is a little family tussle, and we're all going to be family afterwards."  

Ritter from the Gomez camp concurs.  "As long as it's not lies and it's not personal, everybody's got to do what they've got to do. And after May 1, we'll all be working together -- I think that's pretty clear. There's no bad blood."