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Not-So-Great Expectations For Next Brown-Warren Debate

Sen. Scott Brown shakes hands with his Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren before their first debate on Thursday, Sept. 20. (AP)

Sen. Scott Brown shakes hands with his Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren before their first debate on Thursday, Sept. 20. (AP)

What should we expect for the second debate between Sen. Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren on Monday?

Questions: How will Brown raise doubts about his opponent’s character without hurting his “nice guy” image? How will Warren rebut the criticism and go on the offensive?

Contrast: Brown will try to frame the choice on two issues: integrity and independence. Warren will try to focus the debate on two different issues: Romney and Republican.

Strategy: Brown will criticize, question and mock Warren because he wants this debate to ratchet up the controversy. He’s running an aggressive challenger-style campaign because he realizes that as a Republican in Massachusetts he needs to convince more than 20 percent of Obama supporters to see him as an independent, bipartisan, effective senator.

Warren doesn’t want this debate to ignite controversy about personality and character because that would mean Brown is seen as an individual, not a typical Republican pol. She wants the senate race to mirror the presidential contest: Obama/Democrat vs. Romney/Republican.

Goal: Brown wants to force Warren to make a mistake on a character issue so he can keep her on the defensive and win more independents. (Independents tend to vote based on issues like trustworthiness and leadership more than party or ideology). Warren wants to turn personal attacks by Brown into a character issue of her own, suggesting he’s mean and desperate, and she wants to put him on the defensive for being a Republican.

Issues: Each candidate will try to tie issues to their theme, and each theme begins with “C.” For Brown, it’s Character (he wants voters to doubt and distrust his opponent). For Warren, it’s Control (which party should control the senate).

Brown wants to discuss Warren claiming to be 1/32 Cherokee, that she doesn’t have a license to practice law in Massachusetts, and makes over $300,000 for teaching one class at Harvard Law. Warren wants to talk about Romney’s “47 percent” remarks, tax loopholes for the rich, and Paul Ryan’s proposed cuts in the federal budget.

Attacks: Each candidate will try to deflate the opponent. Brown might say something like this about Warren: “You keep saying ‘working middle class families’ but you and your husband struggle to get by on $700,000 from Harvard. I know the cost-of-living is high in Cambridge, but do you really think you are a working middle-class family?”

Warren didn’t mention Romney in the first debate, but this time will say something like: “My opponent sounds like he barely knows Mitt Romney. Let me refresh your memory — he’s the guy who introduced you at your election night victory party, who put his people and money behind you, and who you endorsed for president before he even announced he was running. Ring any bells?”

Gaffes: If either candidate makes a gaffe, expect to see it in a TV spot distributed to the news media the next day.

Humor: Candidates often try to defuse attacks with humor. Brown can expect to be asked about supporters and a staffer going to a Warren rally to mock her with supposed Indian style war whoops and tomahawk chop gestures. He might say, in advance of seriously condemning their antics: “I have made clear there is no place for such conduct. We don’t want any fans of the Atlanta Braves acting foolishly in Red Sox Nation.”

Warren might be asked about Brown saying in the first debate, “Professor Warren claimed that she was a Native American, a person of color, and as you can see, she’s not.” She can criticize his judging someone’s race and ethnicity from appearance, but she might also make a sly allusion to it on other issues. “Funny, you don’t look bipartisan. Oh, excuse me, I mean, your voting record doesn’t.”

Aftermath: Don’t be surprised if the debate continues right after the debate. Brown will probably be available to reporters to press Warren to answer any questions he believes she failed to adequately address in the debate. Warren would likely follow suit; her advisers would not want Brown’s post-debate attacks to go unanswered.

Predictions: Brown will not be wearing cowboy boots to highlight the issue of ethnic heritage. And Warren will not be wearing a barn jacket to demonstrate she’s a populist. Other than that, expect something unpredictable.

Todd Domke is WBUR’s Republican analyst. For more political commentary, go to our Payne & Domke page.

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