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In Tight U.S. Senate Race, Debate Could Be A Game Changer

BOSTON — The U.S. Senate candidates are set to take the stage in their first televised debate Thursday night.

The most recent poll, released Wednesday by UMass-Lowell and The Boston Herald, puts Republican incumbent Sen. Scott Brown in the lead, 50 percent to Democrat Elizabeth Warren’s 44 percent. But four other polls released this week give Warren the edge by a margin of two to six points. All of the polls are either within or just outside of the margin of error, and all of them show a close race going into Thursday’s debate.

Tufts University political science professor Jeff Berry joined WBUR’s Morning Edition to talk about the debate, which he says could be a game changer.

Jeff Berry: This race is very close. Your own poll shows that Warren is up five points, so if there’s a gaffe it could change enough minds to throw it back to even. For Warren, this could be the opportunity to close the deal. For Scott Brown, this could be the Last Chance Cafe.

Bob Oakes: Why do you say that?

Because most people have their minds made up; there’s very few undecided [voters].

So if you’re Brown, what do you have to do to try to pull even with Warren and then pass her? And if you’re Warren, what do you have to do to stay ahead?

OK, let’s take Brown first. I think he should say something like this: “Sadly, Washington is filled with ideologues, hyper-partisans. If you send Elizabeth Warren to the Senate, she’s just going to be one of those, she’s going to join the chorus of partisanship. I’ve been working in the Senate across the aisle. I can build bridges, I can actually work to solve problems rather than scoring points with heated rhetoric. I want to continue to do that if you re-elect me.”

So he has to continue expressing the same kind of bipartisanship approach that he has been dealing out during this campaign.

That’s right and the reason is, in terms of public policy, the voters of Massachusetts don’t like what the Republicans are offering.

All right, Elizabeth Warren: Does she try to protect her lead or try to widen the lead and how does she do that Thursday night?

I think what she needs to do is nationalize the election. So Scott Brown can only win if hundreds of thousands of voters who are going to cast ballots for Barack Obama then split their ticket and vote for [Brown]. So Elizabeth Warren wants to say: “Look, if you send me to Washington, I’ll work with Barack Obama. If you send Scott Brown to Washington, that’s more gridlock.”

What pitfalls do both Brown and Warren have to avoid?

Let’s take Senator Brown first. Brown does a very good job of connecting with ordinary Joes and Janes, but that’s his weakness too. He stresses his affability to a point at which I think it’s become to define him. And I think he needs to convey he has some leadership qualities, he’s not just a nice guy who talks to everybody across both aisles. So my message to Senator Brown is to play against type.

So are you saying he needs to lose the truck?

I wouldn’t lose the truck so much as add a little bit of wonkishness.

And Warren?

Her answer to the problems of middle class, ordinary Joes and Janes is this: “I’m going to go to Washington and I’m going to fight the banks, I’m going to fight Wall Street.” But I don’t think that’s an answer that really satisfies middle income voters. I don’t think they’re really concerned about banks, I think what they’re concerned about is not having any money to put into the bank.

The WBUR poll this week showed that Brown actually leads Warren in terms of favorability, that Brown was more likable. Does Warren have to be more friendly [in the debate]?

I think she wants to be a little less intimidating. You know, she’s a Harvard professor and that’s hard for a lot of people to connect with her on those grounds. So she wants to be, yes, a little bit more affable like Scott Brown, but she doesn’t want to try to be somebody she’s not. So I think her key is to not be warm and fuzzy, but to come across as somebody who can get the job done.

You know, this race has done a poll flip-flop in the last couple of weeks. There is a new poll out from UMass Lowell that shows Brown in the lead by six points, but four other polls this week gave Warren the edge. Just a couple of weeks ago most of the polls had Brown ahead. What happened and how does that inform what the candidates need to do [in the debate]?

The change has not been due to mistakes in the Brown campaign. I don’t think it has to do with his TV commercials or his truck or lack of specificity so far. What’s happening is that Democrats are coming home. And what I mean by that is that the people who are paying the least attention to the race — we know by polling and socioeconomic status that these are low-income Democrats — and so as they’ve started to tune into the campaign and watch what’s going on, they’re basically aligning with the party that they usually vote for.

And so does that mean the stakes are higher Thursday night for Scott Brown?

Stakes are very high for Scott Brown. He’s behind, there’s not that much time. So he needs to make a bit of a breakthrough and to really convince people that he’s somebody who can work to solve problems in Washington and do so effectively.

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