With national protests over police brutality and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic hanging like a cloud over the evening, U.S. Sen. Edward Markey and U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III returned to the debate stage Monday night for the first time in months, clashing over whether the incumbent spends enough time in the state's communities.

Kennedy accused the incumbent of "absent leadership," leaning into a long-held perception of Markey that he spends more time at his suburban Maryland home than in the cities and towns he represents in Congress.

The charge was sharply refuted by Markey, who listed events and funding he had secured for communities in western Massachusetts -- where the debate was held -- and he eventually agreed to provide information about his travel schedule dating back to 2013.

"My visits to western Mass are so frequent that I now have seven of the mayors of western Massachusetts who have endorsed me, from Chicopee to Agawam to North Adams to Pittsfield," Markey said.

The debate was the first in the race since Feb. 18 and it was held at the Springfield studios of Western Mass News and broadcast live in multiple markets and states, with moderators from four different outlets.

Originally scheduled for March 18, the debate was postponed by the campaigns and organizers due to the public health emergency caused by COVID-19. It's the second of six debates slated to take place between Markey and Kennedy before the Sept. 1 Democratic primary, the winner of which will take on the eventual Republican nominee - either Kevin O'Connor or Shiva Ayyadurai.

The socially-distanced stage, with no audience and moderators asking questions from remote locations, made for some awkward early moments, but the candidates seemed to find their footing as the evening wore on.

With little daylight between them on policy, Kennedy used both the health and racial crises to drive home his campaign's central raison d'être -- a belief that at this moment in history achieving change will require new leadership.

"We cannot afford to go back to normal. This moment calls for us to do something different, to build something better and bigger and we will not do that with the same folks and the same mindset that has brought us the last 50 years, because if there is a lesson from this crisis it's that that normal was broken," Kennedy said.

"We need stronger leadership in the Senate, Janet," Kennedy told WCVB's Janet Wu. "This moment requires stronger presence, better judgment and clearer vision than Senator Markey has delivered."

Markey responded by touting his accomplishments in the Senate, from fighting to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in coronavirus relief funding for fisherman, gig workers and low-income families struggling to hear their homes, to pushing for legislation to pay every American $2,000 a month until the pandemic is over.

"We have a big job on our hands. It's almost like an FDR moment. We have to respond to what we see," Markey said.

Kennedy, however, returned to the idea that being a senator is about more than the bills somebody files and the votes they take. For instance, he said that while he supports the Green New Deal, sponsored by Markey and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, it will never pass unless Democrats take control of the Senate.

He pointed to his work traveling and fundraising for House Democratic candidates to flip control of that chamber.

Asked what he would have done differently than Markey over the past few months to respond to the coronavirus health emergency, Kennedy said the government failed years ago by not being prepared for a pandemic.

"You don't let it get this far," Kennedy said.

The sharpest exchanges, by far, however, were over Markey's presence in Massachusetts before his reelection campaign and the COVID-19 pandemic grounded him at his home in Malden.

"Senator, I got in this race and knew it was going to cause some ruffled feathers. I knew it was going to make folks uncomfortable. I had no desire, contrary to some out there, to go commit career suicide. When I called folks in western Massachusetts I spoke to an elected official who said they had seen me in western Massachusetts more over the course of the past year than they had seen you. I was here twice. I don't think the state can afford absent leadership in the moment that we are in," Kennedy said.

"That is absolutely not true," Markey shot back.

He went on to list funding he had secured for the Easthampton fire department and summits he has held in Holyoke and Springfield on the opioid epidemic. If he were an absentee senator, Markey said seven mayors from western Massachusetts would not have endorsed his campaign.

"I have been there for them," he said.

Wu repeatedly pressed Markey to release his travel records, and the senator eventually relented. "I will work with you, Janet, in order to get you the information you want," he said.

Both men empathized with the protesters who have been taking to the streets in cities around the country to voice their anger over the latest death of a black man or woman at the hands of a police officer, and criticized President Donald Trump's response.

Kennedy said that while he didn't condone the looting that occurred in Boston on Sunday night, he understood the anger that drove the violence. He urged people to not let the destruction overshadow the message of those protesting peacefully.

And Markey said, "The protesters out there are crying for justice."

Markey and Kennedy also both said they would support more federal oversight of the Holyoke and Chelsea Soldiers' Homes following the massive outbreak of coronavirus at the state-run Holyoke veterans' care facility that has prompted multiple investigations.

Kennedy, in fact, gave Gov. Charlie Baker a grade of F for his handling of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home situation, and an "incomplete" overall for the governor's response to COVID-19.

Markey blamed Trump for letting states like Massachusetts down by being unprepared to deliver personal protective equipment and other assistance.

"I'm not grading him. He's working very hard," Markey said of Baker.

The two Democrats also said they support substantially forgiving student debt and initiating a review of how best to provide reparations to the ancestors of slaves to begin to repay Black Americans who they said have suffered for generations from the impacts of slavery.

There were also light moments during the debate, including when Kennedy shared that his wife hates when he puts his feet on the coach and Markey saying his wife is concerned about his obsession with Boston sports.

Asked if he might want to use a Senate seat as a springboard to the White House, Kennedy said he had "no plans, none" to run for president after this race, and Markey said he's also probably the only member of the Senate who doesn't think about making that jump.

And on presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's upcoming pick for a running mate, the two were also in agreement - almost.

"Elizabeth Warren," Markey said.

"Ed Markey," Kennedy retorted. "And if not Markey, Elizabeth Warren."