The matchup between Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Warren has been discussed for more than a year, and the first exchange in their debate Thursday focused on the issue of Warren's claimed Native American heritage.
"Professor Warren claimed that she's a Native American and a person of color, and she's not," Brown said. "But the fact is she checked a box."
Warren responded, "I think that Senator Brown is a nice guy, and this race is about the issues." She said those who hired her said she never gained a benefit from it and didn't know about it. "I never asked anyone about any documentation," she said.
"You're an excellent woman too," Brown responded, then implored her to "release the personnel records."
"This is about family. I can't -- and won't -- change who I am," shot back Warren.
The sharp exchange, minor in comparison to the economic crisis and ongoing war in Afghanistan, set the tone for the debate, with both candidates disagreeing substantively over the issues in a state where the political debate runs from left to slightly right-of-center. Jon Keller, a longtime local political commentator, moderated the debate in a Boston television studio with aplomb, and generally stayed out and let the candidates spar.
The next fight came over tax cuts, and the difference was clear. Brown painted Warren as a tax-and-spend liberal, while Warren cited Brown's votes against Democratic jobs bills in the Senate.
"When I talk about how people who are really struggling, I don't know how Senator Brown can vote against them. but Senator Brown is lining up with the Republicans to vote no," said Warren.
"The criticism you're hearing is that I don't want to raise taxes -- guilty as charged," Brown said. "I don't want to raise taxes." He then said, "The only person who's hurting the middle class and raising taxes is you!"
Warren said that Brown would hold "98 percent of families hostage" if the Senate did not vote to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for all earners. "We can't do that to hard-working, middle-class families," she said.
Warren's job heading into the debate was to counter charges that she was too extreme, or too partisan, and would only lead to more gridlock in Washington. The Brown campaign has also tried to paint her as an inflexible schoolmarm and a scold. She acquitted herself well of both charges, coming off as warm and thoughtful, without being overbearing. She spoke in paragraphs, while Brown bounced around from half-sentence to half-sentence, though as Al Gore will tell you, that means less than one might think to some voters.
Warren regularly returned to the theme of control of the Senate, a topic Brown worked hard to avoid, arguing that Warren was not running against the GOP at large but Brown specifically. But the logic of Warren's argument is unavoidable -- and, as Warren noted, one that Brown makes to national GOP donors. Control of the Senate may, indeed, hinge on Massachusetts.
Warren's ultimate goal, reflected in her recent campaign strategy, was to highlight Brown's conservative voting record, which doesn't match his moderate image. Warren hit Brown hard for votes that protected tax breaks for the rich, gave billions in subsidies to big oil, and restricted access to birth control. At one point, Warren had Brown defending tax breaks for oil companies, a moment likely to be repeated in campaign ads to come.
Brown is personally popular in the state, and came into the debate trying to preserve a homegrown, just-a-regular-truck-driving guy image amid a tough race, as the incumbent in comparison to his underdog 2010 run. He emphasized that image at times, and generally came across likeable and moderate, but he went right for an attack on Warren's heritage and referred to her as "Professor Warren" throughout the debate. Those attacks threaten to undermine that nice-guy image, especially as the charges often seemed to come out of the blue.
Brown's famous truck made an appearance in a clash over oil subsidies. "I'm no friend of big oil, I'm a friend of the motorist," Brown said. "It cost about 70 dollars to fill up the truck the other day." He charged that Warren was "obsessed" with raising taxes.
"I'm concerned with how the senator has voted," Warren said. "He's voted to allow billions of your tax dollars to go to the oil industry. This is a real difference between the senator and me. This is about whose side you are on."
The two candidates, who describe themselves "pro-choice" like most Massachusetts voters, also sparred over women's rights. Warren cited Brown's votes against an equal pay for equal work bill and his vote for the Blunt Amendment, which would have allowed employers to make a moral or religious exemption over insurance coverage for contraception.
"You should stop scaring women, Professor," Brown retorted. "I've been fighting for women since I've been 6 years old," shot back Brown. "I want people to have contraceptive care." He then said he had "the same position" as the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, whose seat he succeeded, in supporting a conscience exemption in health care. (Kennedy's son, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I., called Brown's citing of Kennedy "misleading" and told him to stop doing it.)
"I don't think that's what Senator Kennedy fought for and i think it's inappropriate to characterize Senator Kennedy in that way," Warren said.
In a debate over foreign policy, both candidates praised President Barack Obama, and Warren made the distinction that she supports his re-election while Brown does not.
"Obama's drawing a harder line and that's a good thing," said Brown on Iran.
Warren agreed. "I think with Iran, it's very clear, we cannot have a nuclear Iran," she said. "President Obama's done a really great job." She pivoted, "I'm still working to have President Obama be the commander in chief, not Mitt Romney."
Brown quietly support's Romney, who is unpopular in Massachusetts after his one-term governorship and will likely lose his state by double digits. He did not mention him in the debate.
"I agree with you again, I think Secretary Clinton's doing a great job," said Brown, before adding a slight criticism of Obama to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
One of the more aggressive charges from Brown came when he accused Warren of taking the side of a giant insurance company against asbestos victims. It's true that Warren worked as an expert for Travelers Insurance in a major asbestos case, but she was working to create a $500 million trust for current and future victims, as well as to preserve a key element of the bankruptcy code, the Boston Globe has reported. She and Travelers were successful in that effort, but after Warren left the case, Travelers managed to wriggle out of its $500 million payment, hurting victims desperately.
Toward the end of the one-hour debate, Warren tied another Republican senator to Brown, saying that Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who denies global warming, could be the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Commerce Committee if Brown's victory leads Republicans to win control of the Senate.
"You're not running against Jim Inhofe, You're running against me," shot back Brown, who touts his independence from national Republicans.
Warren stayed with the attack. "This really may be the race for control of the United States Senate, not just about Senator Brown's vote -- it's about all the Republicans."
Brown cast himself as "the second-most bipartisan senator" and called Warren the "founder of the radical Occupy protest movement." "Can you imagine 100 Professor Warrens down there placing blame and raising taxes?" he asked.
She responded, "I think it's clear, this race is about whose side you stand on."
Ryan Grim contributed reporting.