Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts made a point of calling Ted Kennedy's old U.S. Senate seat the "people's seat," and he won it in large part by casting himself as the opposite of that glamorous and privileged dynasty.
Brown won in a special election in 2010. Now, Democrat Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law professor and Wall Street watchdog, is raising Democrats' hopes they can win the seat back. Just months after announcing her first-ever candidacy, polls show Warren pulling out ahead of Brown.
The race so far is shaping up to be a contest of who is the "real" populist.
Who Had It Worse?
One ad features Brown's green pickup truck and worn-out barn coat. He stresses his hard-knocks upbringing by a single mom on and off welfare. He pretty much had that market cornered in the last election — but not this time.
"I grew up on the ragged edge of the middle class, and I know it's hard out there," Warren says in her ad.
Warren entered the race swinging back against Republican suggestions that she's part of the out-of-touch Harvard elite. Brown's camp calls her "Professor Warren" every chance it gets, trying to box her in as an ivory-tower type — someone more likely to share a chardonnay than kick back with a beer.
But Warren is telling a different story, of her Oklahoma childhood. "We lost our car, the medical bills piled up. My mom went to work at Sears answering phones so that we could make the mortgage payments," she says in her ad.
It became a game of one downs-manship.
Her father was a maintenance man. His father abandoned him, and his stepfathers abused him.
She was so hard up, she started waiting tables at 13. He was so desperate for cash, he posed nude for a Cosmo centerfold.
"You know, I didn't go to Harvard," he says, "I went to the school of hard knocks, and I did whatever I had to do to pay for school."
Republican consultant Todd Domke says the candidates appear to be competing in an American-Idol-style contest for who has the "best sob story." He says the decades-old tales-of-woe may end up doing little for either the now-incumbent U.S. senator or the law professor turned presidential adviser. Both are now pulling in millions of dollars in white-collar donations.
Indeed, the candidates' battle-of-the-bios has already become the stuff of parody.
"What you have now is Scott Brown sort of running as ... the Allman Brothers' rambling man," says Boston University professor Tobe Berkovitz, "And then you have Elizabeth Warren sort of the Loretta Lynn coal miner's daughter, and both of them are trying to show that they're regular people."
It's easy to understand the urge to stand with the 99 percent this year, but it's also easy to fall into the overzealous trap. For example, Warren visited the Occupy Boston protesters and claimed to be their intellectual mother. She also tried to prove she was "jus' folks" to a fellow Oklahoman, who was interviewing her.
"I'm going for the hick vote here, I just want you to know that," Warren said. "Maybe we could start wearing stickers that say 'Hicks for Elizabeth.' Could we do that?"
Berkovitz says people can get a little carried away.
"A lot of this is just political kabuki that's so typical everywhere," he says.
Still, Berkovitz says, it's a little more surprising in Massachusetts, where Harvard connections don't usually count against you, and where Joe the Plumber wouldn't automatically have more street cred than Jane the Professor.
"I think running against Harvard is a great campaign theme for a Republican in Tennessee," says Jeffrey Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University. "It's not so great around here, and it hasn't gained any traction."
Academia is the industry here, and pedigree never seemed to hurt Kennedy, Sen. John Kerry or former Govs. William Weld and Mitt Romney.
It is perhaps a sign of the times that even in Massachusetts, where income and education are higher and unemployment lower, candidates are scrambling to prove they are of the people as well as for the people. But what distinguishes Brown and Warren is the target of their wrath.
While Brown is positioning himself as the populist crusading against big government, Warren aims at big business.
"I spent years standing up to Wall Street and the big banks, exposing their tricks and traps, fighting to get a fair shake for people," Warren says.
Consultant Domke says the election might turn on what the average Joe here resents more: regulation and taxes or Wall Street and big banks.
"A recent Gallup poll showed that, by far, more Americans thought that big government was a threat to the future rather than big business, but in Massachusetts, that gap is probably less," he says.
Ultimately, if it is Wall Street — not Washington — that's got Massachusetts voters most riled up, Warren may turn out to have the edge, convincing folks that she's the one fighting for the little guy.
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