By Scott Malone
NEEDHAM, Mass., March 27 (Reuters) - The three Republicans seeking to fill Massachusetts' open seat in the U.S. Senate sparred over social issues on Wednesday, staking out opposing views on abortion and social programs in the first debate to feature candidates from both parties.
The Republican front-runner Michael Sullivan, a former U.S. Attorney in Boston, was the sole candidate from his party to say he opposed abortion while rivals Daniel Winslow, a state representative, and Gabriel Gomez, a private equity executive, said they supported abortion rights.
"As a nation we respect life and I'll do whatever I can to protect life," said Sullivan.
On social programs and the budget, Gomez stood out, saying that the government should apply a means-testing approach to determine who draws Social Security benefits.
"Warren Buffett probably doesn't need his full benefit," Gomez said. Winslow and Sullivan expressed doubts about that proposal.
"It's not a welfare program; it's an insurance program," Winslow said of Social Security.
The hourlong debate was divided into two halves, with the Republicans going first, followed by the Democratic contenders.
Polls have shown Democratic Representative Edward Markey with an overall lead for both the April 30 primary and the June 25 special election to fill the seat formerly held by Secretary of State John Kerry.
On the Republican side, Sullivan is the frontrunner, though polls show him trailing Markey in a general-election matchup.
Markey's primary rival is fellow Congressman Stephen Lynch.
A Republican victory could boost that party's effort to take a majority in the Senate in 2014, when one-third of the chamber is up for re-election. Currently the Republicans 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. (Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)