BOSTON — A year’s worth of campaigning came to a head Thursday night in the highly anticipated first debate between Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Scott Brown and his Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren.
Brown came out swinging, immediately questioning Warren’s character by reviving his questions about her claims of Native American heritage.
“Professor Warren claimed that she was a Native American, a person of color, and as you can see, she’s not,” Brown said. “That being said, she checked the box, and she had an opportunity actually to make a decision throughout her career. When she applied to Penn and Harvard, she checked the box claiming she was a Native American, and clearly she’s not.”
On the campaign trail, this is an issue that voters still talk about whenever they express doubts about Warren, and that fact is not lost on Brown. Warren has tried to put this issue behind her, but Thursday night Brown forced her to revisit it.
“Senator Brown wants to raise an issue about my character, then I’ll lay it out there,” Warren said. “You know, when I was growing up, these were the stories I knew about my heritage. I believed my mother and my father and my aunts and my uncles and I never asked anybody for any documentation.”
Warren said from the outset of this debate that she would make it about Brown’s voting record. And she did not waver from that objective.
“Senator Brown voted to protect billions of dollars in subsidies for big oil companies,” Warren said. “They made $137 billion in profits last year.”
Brown came back by moving the debate from the abstract to the personal: he brought up his now-famous beat-up green pickup truck.
“With regard to oil companies, listen, I’m no friend to big oil,” Brown said. “I’m a friend to the motorist. I’m not sure if you’ve been to the pumps lately folks, but $4 a gallon. It took about $70 to fill up the truck the other day.”
If the polls are correct, come election day, many people in Massachusetts will cast their vote for President Obama and for Brown. Because Democrats outnumber Republicans three to one in Massachusetts, Brown needs to encourage people to split the ticket. And so he never once mentioned the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, but on several occasions, he indicated his agreement with Obama, including on how to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
“We can’t have a nuanced approach, and that’s the key,” Brown said. “Professor Warren has said when dealing with Iran, we should have a nuanced approach, and that’s something that Iran doesn’t understand. President Obama understood that in the beginning. He’s obviously drawn a harder line, and that’s a good thing.”
That opened the door for Warren to make a pitch to the president’s supporters.
“He’s taking nothing off the table,” Warren said. “That’s the way to go into negotiations. That’s the best way to work with our ally Israel, and make sure that we are protecting Israel, but I want to say this: I’m still working to have President Obama be the commander-in-chief, not Mitt Romney.”
These two candidates came into this debate on fairly even footing. The last poll showed Brown ahead. The previous four showed Warren leading. Throughout the debate, they demonstrated completely different styles. Warren was the calm attorney, unruffled, making her case to voters as to why they should vote Brown out, tying him to his party.
Brown made a more personal argument. He pointed to his independent voting record, questioned Warren’s character, and brought up his own life.
And they get to do it all over again three more times before the election.
This post was updated with the Morning Edition feature.