Payne & Domke: Warren's Lead Puts The Burden On Her Challengers

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BOSTON — All six of the Democrats vying for a chance to unseat Republican Sen. Scott Brown gather for their first debate Tuesday evening at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

The six Democratic Senate candidates (AP)
The six Democratic Senate candidates (AP)

The debate comes a day after a poll by the university and The Boston Herald, putting consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren way in front of the other five with more than a 30-point lead, and in a near tie with Brown.

WBUR's political analysts — Democrat Dan Payne and Republican Todd Domke — sat down with Bob Oakes to discuss the findings and what they mean for the stakes of the debate:

Todd Domke (R): What was unusual about [Warren's] candidacy was that she really came out of Washington, I mean this was from the national down to the local and that's very unusual for a candidate for the Senate to really get her credibility from people who don't even live in the state.

But how did she zoom ahead of other candidates? At least a couple were fairly well known — Setti Warren, the mayor of Newton, who's now dropped out of the race, and Alan Khazei, who ran for the Senate last time around.

Dan Payne (D): Well I think she fills a need. The other candidates, while they're certainly credible figures, at least three of them are, you know, haven't really been active in politics for awhile or they haven't really made much of a dent with the electorate.

She came in and she's been touted as an exciting, interesting person and, you know, the others, frankly, just didn't have much call in the voters' attention.

Todd Domke (R): Let's keep in mind what gave her high favorables and this month-long positive publicity she enjoyed was the idea that she was being drafted, that she was the reluctant candidate. And people liked that, it made her out to be not-your-typical-politician and it made the other candidates, who had been running for some time, look irrelevant.

Dan Payne (D): Well also, I should add, Warren is like the new transfer kid who came into high school. She's very interesting, she's a little exciting, attractive, etc., but you know she's got to last the whole year. Can she sustain peoples' interests for almost a year? That's the challenge for her.

So does that make Tuesday's contest, with Warren sitting there debating for the first time, very important to her?

Dan Payne (D): Yes, because people — if they're watching or reading or hearing — they'll get a chance to take the measure of her for the very first time in a situation that isn't totally managed.

Todd Domke (R): Right, the dynamic of the race now is that five of the six candidates are not dynamic. They're so far behind the front-runner, Elizabeth Warren, that the question is: Will this really become a race, or will we see the other candidates follow Setti Warren in dropping out?

So what does Elizabeth Warren have to do Tuesday night in order to protect herself and in order to show the voters who are paying attention to this that she's worthy of all the support she's gotten so early in the race?

Todd Domke (R): Well, she needs to continue what she's been doing in recent weeks: running against Scott Brown. She doesn't want to get into arguments with the Democratic opponents but she can't just ignore criticism, either. She'll have to deflect any attacks that could undermine her reputation if unanswered.

I think her opponents will try to depict her as the Washington establishment candidate as opposed to being a populist for Massachusetts. And it's true, her campaign has plenty of Washington handlers steering her and endorsing her, a lot of money because of the Washington support.

So her rivals have reason to resent what they see as interference by party leaders in a state primary. So that's a criticism she'll hear — that she's more Washington than Massachusetts, more Harvard College than Harvard, Mass. — and she can't ignore those barbs because that's what Scott Brown will say about her, too.

And what do you do at this point if you're one of the other five candidates — Alan Khazei, Tom Conroy, Marisa DeFranco, Bob Massie, Herb Robinson — to get back into this thing, especially after this poll shows that she's so far ahead, that none of the other five got more than 5 percent?

Dan Payne (D): One of them has got to take her on. If they want to make a name for themselves, get people to pay attention to them as different than the rest of the nobodys, they've got to go after her. But it's going to be tough to coach somebody to do that, because they're going to be so nervous, feeling like this is their great moment, you know, if somebody does it, I give them credit for the aplomb and confidence.

Todd Domke (R): Yeah, I don't like to put more pressure on the five candidates challenging the front-runner, because I like underdogs and contested primaries, but if Khazei and Conroy and the others can't make a case against Elizabeth Warren and they can't inspire liberals who dominate the primaries, this debate will be the beginning and end of the contest.

Dan Payne (D): Yeah, and I think this is her chance to demonstrate that even though she's moving into a new arena, politics, she's as good at that as she was in government and at Harvard Law School.

Todd Domke (R): She'll need to take some definitive positions on issues, instead of just playing it safe and vague. She shouldn't have any problem talking about the protestors occupying Wall Street and Boston, but where is she on President Obama's proposed jobs bill? And local issues, like whether legislators leaving office can take lucrative positions with casinos. She's going to have to prove that she's a candidate for Massachusetts, not of Washington.

Headshot of Bob Oakes

Bob Oakes Senior Correspondent
Bob Oakes was a senior correspondent in the WBUR newsroom, a role he took on in 2021 after nearly three decades hosting WBUR's Morning Edition.



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