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Mass. candidate: Sorry for 'unbecoming' comment

The race to become Massachusetts’ next attorney general is getting nasty, with women’s rights group alleging sexism against female candidate Maura Healey.
Attorney General Candidates Debate At The Boston Globe
Attorney General candidates Maura Healey and Warren Tolman appear in a debate at The Boston Globe on Aug. 26, 2014.

The Massachusetts attorney general race is turning heads after a male candidate used the word "unbecoming" to describe his female challenger, with women's rights groups up in arms.

Less than two weeks until the primary, Democrat Warren Tolman is apologizing to anyone offended by his comment during a debate Tuesday with his primary opponent, Maura Healey.

“Maura, it’s just unbecoming,” Tolman said at a Boston Globe Opinion debate. “I’m surprised you continue to push these issues rather than talk about the tissues people care about.”

The comments came after a series of questions from Healey demanding more transparency about Tolman’s time as a lobbyist. At the time, the line didn’t seem to ruffle any feathers in the crowd, but hours afterward, the Healey campaign and women’s groups pounced with a massive online fundraising plea.

Related: '30 in 30' Women to Watch in 2014

The Tolman campaign did not immediately respond to msnbc for comment, but in a story published by The Lowell Sun, Tolman apologized.

"If anyone listened to the debate or watched the debate they know that was not my intention, but I'm always sorry if something I say offends someone," Tolman said. "The point I was trying to make is that she continues to make accusations that are just not backed up by the facts and she knows it."

This week’s episode took voters back to 2002, when then-gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney characterized attacks on his abortion record by his female opponent as “unbecoming.” Romney was criticized by prominent women’s organizations, as well as former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. He went on to win that election against Shannon O’Brien by nearly five points. O’Brien has thrown her support behind Tolman in this election.   

This time around, Tolman is receiving the same kind of backlash. Marty Walz, the CEO of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts tweeted “Sad when strong women are subjected to demeaning comments.” Walz also signed an online fundraising letter on behalf of Healey. 

Healey's campaign manager, Mike Firestone, said the campaign had a “couple hundred” contributions since Tuesday night’s debate, which he described as higher-than-normal activity.

“(The campaign) has accepted Warren’s apology and is moving on to the issues that we’re trying to get at, which is the very different experiences between Maura and Warren when it comes to their background to be the people’s lawyer,” Firestone told msnbc Thursday. 

Healey is vying to become Massachusetts first openly gay attorney general and the state’s second female to hold the position. A Suffolk University/Boston Herald poll this month finds Tolman with a 6-point lead over Healey, but a Boston Globe poll gives Healey a slight edge. The Democratic primary is Sept. 9.

Healey is a former assistant attorney general and civil rights attorney. This is her first run for public office. Tolman is a former state lawmaker who served in the state House and Senate for a combined eight years. The two candidates agree on many issues, but their wide consensus has been overshadowed by seemingly smaller issues – like use of the word “unbecoming” – that each campaign tries to capitalize on.

“We’re not making the case to women that they should vote for Maura because she’s a woman or not vote for Warren because he’s a man,” Firestone said.

The state and electorate have changed significantly over the past decade. Women now hold one of Massachusetts’ U.S. Senate seats and two of its nine House spots.  The attorney general’s office is being vacated this year by Martha Coakley, who’s running for governor. Coakley has been attorney general since 2007 and lost to Republican Scott Brown in a failed U.S. Senate campaign to replace Senator Ted Kennedy.

The two candidates meet again tonight for a debate at Stonehill College.