Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown came out swinging in his first debate with Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren Thursday night, a departure from his normal personae after trailing in several polls.
Brown derisively referred to his opponent as “Professor Warren” — reminding working-class Democrats of her Harvard affiliation — and devoted much of his opening statement to her claims of Native American heritage.
“Professor Warren claimed she was a Native American, a person of color,” Brown said. “As you can see, she’s not. That being said, she checked the box.”
Brown repeatedly hit Warren on taxes and her ties to Occupy Wall Street.
“The first answer, every time, she’s obsessed with raising taxes,” he said.
When Warren called Brown a creature of corporations, Brown shot back, “There is only one person in this debate, right now Jon, who is protecting corporations.”
The senator accused his opponent of denying benefits to workers suffering from asbestos poisoning.
“When you worked to prohibit people who got asbestos poisoning, and I hope all the asbestos union workers are watching right now,” Brown said animatedly. “She denied, she helped Travelers deny those benefits for asbestos poisoning, made over $250,000 in an effort to protect big corporations.”
In response to a question about education costs, Brown mentioned Warren’s high Harvard salary.
Brown’s aggressive posture may be necessary, since he ran behind Warren in four of the last five statewide polls, but it carries some risk.
A big part of Brown’s appeal has always been that he is a nice guy. He emphasizes his New England cultural ties and appreciation of Boston sports over ideological politics.
One of the things that helped Brown win his seat in early 2010 was his Democratic opponent misidentifying a legendary Red Sox pitcher as a New York Yankees fan.
Two years ago Brown, a rare Massachusetts Republican who has never lost an election, was generally positive in the face of relentless negative campaigning. If his first debate performance was any indication, he now plans to be more hard-hitting.
This approach has yielded mixed results for Massachusetts Republicans in the past. During a particularly tense 1998 gubernatorial debate between Paul Cellucci and his Democratic challenger Scott Harshbarger, Harshbarger chided the GOP incumbent, “Tell the truth, Paul.”
Cellucci, a movie buff, responded, “You can’t handle the truth.”
He won the election by a narrow margin.
Four years later, Mitt Romney squared off with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shannon O’Brien. She pressed him on his abortion stance.
Romney said her attacks were “unbecoming” and was widely accused of talking down to his female opponent.
The adjective became a Democratic rallying cry. Teresa Heinz Kerry headlined a fundraiser of 750 women backing O’Brien and said she was surprised by how many “unbecoming women” were there.
But the flap didn’t move Romney’s poll numbers and he beat O’Brien in November.
Last night Brown continued to burnish his nonpartisan credentials, touting his independence from the GOP and asking voters to imagine how ideological a Senate of “100 Elizabeth Warrens” would be.
But Brown wasn’t the sunny pickup truck driver who had won the votes of independents and conservative Democrats in a state where only 13 percent of the registered voters are Republicans.
It remains to be seen how those Massachusetts swing voters like their senator striking a more combative pose.
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