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Elizabeth Warren struggles with response to Native American questions (again)

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As we wrote earlier this week, Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren (D) has been playing defense regarding recent questions about her Native American heritage

The bigger problem for Warren as the week has drawn one is that she isn't playing defense very well, continuing to give Republicans lighter fluid with which to keep the controversy burning.

In a long back-and-forth with reporters on Wednesday, Warren explained that she had listed herself as a minority in past professional directories “because I thought I might be invited to meetings where I might meet more people who had grown up like I had grown up.”

View Photo Gallery: The Harvard professor, chief bailout watchdog and key architect of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will run for the Senate seat currently held by Republican Scott Brown.

Asked if she regretted self-identifying as Native American given all the grief she’s gotten over the past week, Warren gave a long, rambling response.

“I have lived in a family that has talked about Native America, talked about tribes, since I’ve been a little girl,” she said. “I still have a picture on my mantle at home, and it’s a picture of my mother’s dad, a picture of my grandfather, and my Aunt Bee has walked by that picture at least a 1000 times, remarked that her father, my Pappa, had high cheekbones, like all of the Indians do, because that’s how she saw it, and your mother got those same great cheekbones, and I didn’t. And she though this was the bad deal she had gotten in life. Being Native American has been a part of my story, I guess since the day I was born, I don’t know any other way to describe it.”

Here’s the video of that Warren riff:

<iframe width=”500” height=”369” src=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/uegqTj3SHO4” frameborder=”0” allowfullscreen></iframe>

That kind of convoluted answer, filled with odd details, is exactly how not to respond to an attack. Instead of a short and to the point response about why she claimed Native American heritage on some law documents, Warren instead launched on a personal reflection that gives her political opponents plenty of fodder. (High cheekbones!)

Records show that Warren does have a great-great-great grandmother who was listed as a Cherokee on her marriage application, and its entirely plausible that that small tie was enough for her family to consider relevant. (The current principal chief of the Cherokee Nation is only 1/32 Cherokee.)

And the Warren campaign was quick to find officials at every law school where she’s taught to say that her listing as a minority had nothing to do with her hiring.

“Elizabeth Warren is being straightforward about her family heritage and the achievements she’s earned through hard work and accomplishment, as the people who recruited her over the past 30 years make clear,” said campaign manager Mindy Myers. Myers blamed the story on incumbent Sen. Scott Brown (R), who she alleged, is attempting to use it as a “distraction”from issues like health care.

But Warren’s inability to stick to one message on this question has turned what might have been a one-day story into a drawn-out affair.

Democrats acknowledge that it’s been a bad week for Warren, but they argue that in the grand scheme of the race this moment won’t be very memorable. Brown has stuck his foot in his mouth too, they note, as he was fooled by fake photos of Osama bin Laden’s body almost a year ago to the day.

That’s true, and this race is not going to be won on this odd but ultimately minor story. What is significant: Warren was caught off-guard and had difficulty responding. With all the attention she’s gotten and money she’s raised, it’s easy to forget that this in­cred­ibly high-profile Senate race is Warren’s first political campaign. To beat Brown, she will have to learn a little more quickly.

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