Brown, Warren Trade Shots In First Debate

With their political platforms established, U.S. Senator Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren turned their attention to political name-calling and campaign-trail narratives in the first debate in Massachusetts race for U.S. Senate last week.

Though much of Thursday’s hour-long debate was spent arguing over taxes, jobs bills, student loans, and energy, political experts said the campaigns were more interested in the tone they could set for the campaign trail than parsing out policy.

“Issue-wise, I don't think there was much new from the debate,” said Republican strategist Todd Domke. “We knew where they agreed and where they disagreed. We knew before how Brown would try to sound similar to [Warren] on social issues, and how they would argue the tax questions.”

Their divergent goals allowed both campaigns to claim victory, but three days after the debate, political analysts say the night belonged to Harvard Law School professor Warren.

“She certainly has momentum,” Democratic political strategist Mary Anne Marsh said after the debate.

From the outset Brown questioned Warren’s character. In response to moderator Jon Keller’s first questions about character, he repeatedly asked Warren explain why she had identified herself as Native American while a professor at Harvard and Penn. Brown suggested that this labeling constituted an unfair advantage by an out-of-touch professor—a narrative he returned to throughout the night.

But the centerpiece of the his attack was Warren’s involvement in a 2009 Supreme Court case where she argued on behalf of Travelers Insurance Company. That case ruled that Travelers, and the asbestos companies it represented, would settle with asbestos victims through a general fund outside of court. Brown argued that Warren had fought against victims and on behalf of corporate interests.

Though the claims gained little traction in the debate, Domke said he doubts they will not be going away anytime soon.

“He didn't have a success how they had hoped, but he has the resources to force the issue,” Domke said. “What he couldn't do in the debate or post-debate publicity, he can do in advertising.”

Warren, a novice debater, had less ambitious goals for the evening, experts said. She focused on the incumbent’s voting record, painting Brown as a corporate booster who has forgotten the best interest of the people of Massachusetts.

“[Brown] came out of the gate very, very strong and went right after Elizabeth Warren, but I think she also, when she got her footing—and she did it very quickly—went after him as well. And I think she was very effective going after his votes,” Marsh said.

Warren spent much of the latter half of the debate emphasizing the race’s national importance. She said a vote for Brown is a vote for the Republican party and its right-wing conservative leaders.

“Whenever she mentioned Obama that was a benefit to her. Whenever she reminded people that Scott Brown is a Republican and Republicans could take over the Senate, that hurts Scott Brown,” Marsh said.

Whether or not Democratic momentum will be enough to carry Warren through to November is less certain. Analysts said both candidates will likely have to pay closer attention to the issues next time around and improve their performance before the next debate, which is scheduled for Oct. 1 in Lowell.

“I think that both of them have a challenge remembering that even though we've come a long way as a country, Brown cannot appear to be beating up on the grandmother, and Elizabeth has to be careful not to be too preachy or too professorial,” former Boston city councillor Lawrence S. DiCara ’71 said.

—Staff writer Nicholas P. Fandos can be reached at nigholasfandos@college.harvard.edu.

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