The first Scott Brown-Elizabeth Warren debate: four takeaways

September 20, 2012

The first of four debates between Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Elizabeth Warren is in the books, after a spirited one-hour session hosted by WBZ-TV in Boston Thursday night. The debate was animated, and chock full of memorable barbs. Here are our four biggest takeaways (Did we overlook anything? The comments section awaits):

* The Native American issue isn't gone: Right off the bat, the candidates were asked what they thought about each other's character. And right off the bat, Brown brought up Warren's claim to Native American heritage, the issue which seized most of the attention in the contest during the spring. "Professor Warren claimed she was a Native American, a person of color -- and as you can see, she is not," Brown said. Warren, who was listed in a faculty directory as a minority retorted: "I didn't get an advantage because of my background."


(John Dwyer/AP)

Polling conducted after about of month of tussling over the issue in the spring showed Warren was largely unharmed by the back and forth. But her campaign fumbled its responses and the whole thing distracted from Warren's message. It's hard to see how it could be good for Warren if the issue is brought to the forefront once again.

* Warren focused heavily on votes Brown has taken: Time and again during the debate, Warren pointed to votes Brown already has on his record. She noted his vote against confirming Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court and his support for the Blunt Amendment. It was an effective technique to bring focus to Scott Brown the senator as opposed to Scott Brown the person, as the latter is very likable, polling shows.

* Brown's aggressiveness: Whether it was his opening on Warren's heritage, or his blunt line that Warren "should stop scaring women," Brown did not adopt a passive posture, and he was even visibly irked at points. It wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but Brown needs to be careful not to come across as too angry, something that could take the sheen off the nice-guy image he has been cultivating.

* Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) makes a cameo ... but what about more Romney/McConnell? Toward the end of the debate, Warren played a powerful card -- but also one she arguably should have played earlier and more often. She noted that a vote for Brown is a vote for a Republican Senate majority and explained that if Republicans take over, Sen. Inhofe -- who has sought to refute the notion of man made climate change -- would become the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

It's a striking argument to make in a blue state -- and one that Warren could have made more often during the hour-long back-and-forth. She mentioned Mitt Romney and Senate Republicans, but only sparingly throughout the hour.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Sean Sullivan · September 20, 2012