Everyone seems to be griping that the race for John Kerry's old Senate seat is too boring. But while the contest lacks the primal drama of last year's Elizabeth Warren-Scott Brown grudge match, it's actually pretty fascinating — as last night's back-to-back debates at WCVB showed. The intrigue is there; it's just more understated than what we enjoyed in 2012.

Let's start with the Republicans, who had the honor of facing each other — and moderator R.D. Sahl — first. The most interesting twist in the GOP tilt was the unwillingness of newcomer Gabriel Gomez to challenge his opponents in any meaningful way. Gomez, according to a new poll from WBUR and MassINC, is currently third in a field of three, which suggested he'd roll into WCVB's Needham studios looking to shake things up. Not even close. Here's what transpired when Sahl gave Gomez a chance to question one of his opponents, State Rep. Dan Winslow, who's vying with Gomez for the social-moderate vote:

SAHL: Mr. Gomez to Mr. Winslow.

GOMEZ: Yeah, I'm not here to ask questions of my fellow candidates — to try to tear them down or to put them on the spot. However, I do have questions for [Democratic] Congressman [Ed] Markey and [Democratic] Congressman [Steve] Lynch. They're right outside —

SAHL: You have to run against these two fellas first. 

GOMEZ: I understand. But I think the people of Massachusetts want answers to, do Congressman Markey and Congressman Lynch actually favor the budget that just came out of the Democratic Senate, that never balances and has a trillion dollars in tax increases?

SAHL: You'll have a chance to ask them that question if you're —

Gomez: Okay — Dan, Dan, Dan. Do you think Congressman Markey and Congressman Lynch should have to answer the question of whether or not they support the Democratic budget?

It was a bizarre, surreal moment — and it raised the question: Is Gomez really running to win, or just to build his name for some other candidacy further down the line? If it's the latter, then Gomez's soft touch where his opponents are concerned might make some sense. Republicans love to cite the "commandment" (incorrectly attributed to Ronald Reagan) that GOP members not speak ill of each other, and Gomez certainly put that theory into practice tonight. But there are artful ways to avoid conflict — and then there's the approach Gomez took at WCVB. It didn't make him look like a political prospect to keep an eye on; instead, it just made him look kind of goofy. And that's a shame, because after a somewhat choppy performance in the recent GOP Senate forum at Stonehill College, Gomez had actually started the WCVB debate looking pretty strong. 

Dan Winslow, in contrast, had no qualms about taking some sharp jabs at former US Attorney Michael Sullivan, who's emerged as the clear frontrunner in the GOP field. One notable exchange came when Sullivan accused Winslow of a lack of clarity on the question of gay marriage — specifically, whether that issue should be decided at the federal level or by the states (Sullivan's preference). "It's not clear to me where Mr. Winslow's position is on that," Sullivan complained.

"I'm not sure of Mr. Sullivan's position on marriage, from what he said," Winslow retorted. "Because I  support marriage for all persons — all persons in Massachusetts and throughout the country. And I want to be clear about that. Mr. Sullivan wants to have government intrude into the personal lives of people, into something that is so personal, about who they can get to marry. And I disagree with that." The exchange was especially effective because Sullivan wasn't given a chance to reply, and didn't demand one.

Still, the fact remains that Sullivan is out-polling his rivals by a pretty wide margin, with the April 30 primary looming ever closer. And despite positions that might not play well in the general election — from his support for Obamacare's repeal to his dismissive attitude toward Roe v. Wade — Sullivan continues to exude a steely calm that makes you feel that the primary is his to lose. Aesthetics matter in politics; they both reflect the state of play and shape it. And at the moment, they're working in Sullivan's favor. 

Not so for Ed Markey. Like Sullivan, Markey is his party's current frontrunner; the aforementioned poll shows him ahead of Lynch by 11 points. But unlike Sullivan, Markey wasn't a commanding presence this evening. In fact, he looked agitated and uneasy — whether he was listening to Lynch bat away an attempted Markey attack (e.g., why Lynch opposed Obamacare when it was passed by the House) or touting his own accomplishments (e.g., his work on telecommunications legislation). The best parallel I can think of is the first debate between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren, in which Brown developed a case of political Morgellons that made Warren appear downright serene. That's kind of how Markey was tonight — except he was actually worse.

And again: Aesthetics matter. When the two candidates tangled on abortion — Markey is enthusiastically pro-choice; Lynch says he's personally pro-life but that Roe v. Wade is settled law — Lynch's mellow, authentic mien helped him greatly. When Markey was asked how he came to view abortion the way he does — as an essential right that should be unapologetically embraced — his answer felt almost antiseptic, like he was reciting a memorized script.  Lynch, in contrast, offered an impassioned call for abortion opponents to forget about attacking Roe v. Wade — and instead work to prevent abortions by increasing access to contraception. On an issue that should have redounded to Markey's advantage, at least in a Democratic primary, Lynch got the upper hand.

All this comes with a caveat: namely, the candidates debate again tomorrow in Springfield. Maybe we'll see a confident, aggressive Gabriel Gomez, and an Ed Markey who looks like he's delighted to have a chance to show voters why he should be senator and not Steve Lynch. Stranger things have happened. But based on what just transpired in Needham, I wouldn't bet on it.