10/10/2012 09:55 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2012

Massachusetts Senate Debates, Round Three: Warren Over Brown

The third debate between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown, candidates for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, accomplished something their two previous matches did not: it produced a winner. Professor Warren had her best night in the debate arena thus far, delivering a performance that was focused, confident and energetic. Although Senator Brown made no particular missteps, throughout most of this debate he found himself playing defense, stranded on his opponent's turf.

Scott Brown is an exceptionally smooth politician, with a gift for packaging his message in the form of personal appeals. He addresses himself directly to crowd, calls the voters "folks," reminds the audience that he's a native son of the Commonwealth, carpet-bombs the debate hall with local names and references. He exudes charisma, to a degree that most politicians would envy. And he looks like Richard Gere, only handsomer.

But Elizabeth Warren seems to have figured out an effective antidote to the potency of Brown's charms. Unable to match her opponent on charisma, she comes at him with intellect -- lots and lots of intellect. In the end, her ability to frame and sustain an argument reduces Brown's likability to a lesser asset, a shiny object that's all surface and no depth.

Throughout these debates, Warren's goal has been to tie Brown to the Republican Party from which he so strenuously distances himself. In this third match of the series, by repeatedly invoking the likes of Mitt Romney and Grover Norquist, Warren succeeded in plastering a scarlet "R" upon his back. Her previous steps in this direction were tentative and insufficient; this time, by keeping at it, she gave her argument a through-line that grew more apparent over the course of the hour.

Warren's strongest answer of the night came in response to a question about women's issues. Methodically dissecting Brown's voting record in this area, the challenger displayed some of the passion that has too often been absent from her campaign. "The women of Massachusetts need a senator they can count on not some of the time but all of the time," Warren said, in what will probably become the night's most-played sound bite. Referring to equal pay and birth control, she noted with exasperation, "These issues were resolved years ago, until the Republicans brought them back." Lest there be any doubt whom to she was referring, on the word "Republicans" Warren looked straight at Senator Brown.

As he did in their two earlier debates, Brown at times struck a needlessly petty tone with his rival. Once again he brought up Warren's salary and benefits package, as though her professional success is something she ought to be ashamed of. Brown also came across as more thin-skinned than his opponent, referring to "her constant criticisms of me" in a way that made him sound like a whiner. Responding to Warren's assertion that the middle class is getting hammered, Brown shot back with a line that was more nonsensical than effective: "Professor Warren, I suggest you put down the hammer." One of the clear contrasts between these two candidates is that she gets under his skin, but he doesn't get under hers.

According to the polls, this race remains neck and neck. The problem for Brown is that Warren is improving as a debater, while he remains stuck in place. It's probably good for the senator that only one more joint appearance looms on the horizon, scheduled exactly a week before Election Day. If Elizabeth Warren does as well in the last debate as she did in round three, she may finally break the logjam that has kept this race too close to call.