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What to Expect From the Brown-Warren Debate

Thursday, September 20, 2012


Republican Senator Scott Brown and Democratic hopeful Elizabeth Warren will meet Thursday night for the first of four debates in their race for the Massachusetts Senate seat.

With less than 50 days until the election, the race is still anyone's to win, and observers say both candidates will be eager to score points wherever and however they can during the televised debate.

Making An Impression

While Warren and Brown will each try to put their best face forward in the prime-time face-off, they will also devote time in the debate to influencing how voters see their rival.

"The memorable aspect of debates is less how the candidates portray themselves and more how they paint their opponent," said Morgan Marietta, a professor of Political Science at UMass-Lowell.

For Brown, that will likely entail reviving the image of Warren as an out-of-touch radical who has spent too much time in academia and not enough among the working and middle classes.

Marietta said to expect references to "Professor Warren" and possibly to her Native American heritage.

"In this contest of personalities, the more human and authentic speaker will gain the most," Marietta said.

The Role of Romney and the GOP

On the other side, Warren may continue to paint the Republican party with broad strokes, focusing more on public comments made by Brown's fellow GOP members, such as Todd Akin, Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney.

"Elizabeth Warren needs to do everything she can to link Scott Brown to the GOP nationally," said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University.

Lawless said Brown's bipartisan voting record won't matter if Warren can get voters to see a Republican victory in Massachusetts as advancing the national agenda in Washington or handing over the Senate majority to the GOP.

Such a tactic would not be without its own risks, as Brown has previously criticized Warren for trying to run against Romney and Ryan for the Senate seat rather than himself, the independent everyman.

Brown may be able to dance around talking about Akin or Ryan, but Romney will be a harder topic to avoid.

The Warren campaign has already jumped on the Republican presidential candidate's comments at a private fundraiser released earlier this week, wherein Romney seemingly dismisses the 47 percent of Americans who pay no federal income taxes.

Balancing National and Local

In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly by a margin of nearly three to one and President Obama lead Romney 57-39 in a recent poll, staying away from the national race is in Brown's best interest.

"Brown has to explain why a moderate Republican is better for Massachusetts than a Democrat," said Darrell West of the Brookings Institution.

West said Brown will attempt to localize the Senate race as much as possible, while Warren continues to tack in the opposite direction, trying to link him with as many of the GOP's own extreme elements as she can.

At the same time, she faces an uphill climb going up against Brown's regular guy persona.

"Warren’s challenge is to connect with ordinary voters so she needs to distinguish herself from Brown while also explaining why her vision is more compelling than her opponent's," West said.

Robert Boatright, an associate professor Political Science at Clark University, expects to see both candidates play up their connections around the state as Warren did during her speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.

"Overall, Warren needs to talk policy in a way that connects to people," he said.

"Brown has more latitude to dodge policy questions but will need to spend time disowning the Republican Party."

Lawless noted that Brown's efforts to distance himself from the GOP and encourage voters to split their ticket with him and Obama is already evident in the Republican's campaign ads.

"He needs to continue to draw distinctions between himself and the GOP nationally," she said. "And he needs to convince voters that his track record and independence is what matters most."

'Warren's Debate to Lose'

Surveys from Kimball Political Consulting, the Western New England University Polling Institute and Public Policy Polling all recorded an advantage for the Democratic candidate following her address at the DNC, and she is still riding that wave of momentum as she heads into the first face-off with Brown.

With state party numbers firmly in her favor, the Democrat has an opportunity to put even more daylight between herself and her opponent.

Yet Brown pulled off a victory in the 2010 special election, and he already holds the seat Warren is still hoping for.

"Given the recent polls, this is Warren’s debate to lose. She can approach it with confidence and she has state demographics on her side," said Lawless.

"That said, incumbency is a powerful tool, and the outcome is far from a foregone conclusion." 


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