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Warren stands firm in debate

Senate hopefuls do no sparring

By Noah Bierman and Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / October 5, 2011

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LOWELL - Elizabeth Warren used her first Democratic debate last night to solidify her position as the front-runner in the race, with her opponents doing little to knock her off her stride or challenge her on any fundamental issue.

Warren’s performance showed a command of subjects and a comfortable stage presence, despite a lack of political experience as she begins her quest to unseat Senator Scott Brown, a Republican.

She was able to stay on her message, retelling the story of her battle to build a consumer protection agency against entrenched interests in the nation’s capital.

“Forbes Magazine named Scott Brown Wall Street’s favorite senator, and I was thinking that’s probably not an award I’m going to get,’’ she said.

Warren’s five competitors, perhaps burdened by the complicated format, missed a chance to put her on the defensive. None of the candidates sparred directly with one another, and even mild critiques were oblique.

Still, they were able to present their own case and articulate their positions on the major issues confronting the country.

On war, taxes, regulation, and stimulus spending, the Democrats are almost universally to the left of President Obama, urging a quick military withdrawal, higher taxes on the rich, a broader crackdown on Wall Street, and more government spending to jump-start the economy.

Alan Khazei, the candidate viewed as Warren’s closest rival, took only a veiled swipe at her, criticizing the “Washington establishment’’ and the political action committees that are backing Warren without mentioning her by name.

“If you think Washington PACS should call the shots, then the Washington establishment will get [its] way, then this election will be over before it starts,’’ Khazei said.

Warren, who declined Khazei’s challenge to reject PAC money last month, said after the debate that she has spent her career fighting big money interests and banks.

“No one has any question where I stand,’’ she said. “I fight for middle-class families, and nothing, nothing will change that.’’

Throughout the 90-minute face off at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Brown was seldom mentioned, but the candidates were eager to demonstrate that each was best-equipped to defeat him in 2012.

“Next to me, he will come across as nothing more than an empty suit with an empty list’’ of accomplishments, said Thomas P. Conroy, a state legislator from Wayland.

One by one, all of the candidates expressed support for popular Democratic themes: the protesters who are part of the Occupy Boston movement downtown, medical marijuana use, money for Planned Parenthood, abortion rights, and the rights of the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public universities.

Though the election is still a year away, the UMass Lowell/Boston Herald debate brought a sense of excitement to the campus and to the race, with red, white, and blue bunting adorning the debate hall, news trucks lined up, and supporters of Warren and Khazei arriving hours ahead of time to wave signs.

In the absence of direct confrontation, the candidates used the evening as an opportunity to introduce themselves.

Warren demonstrated her ability to combine a professor’s command of the economy with the plain language of a populist fighter. Khazei, cofounder of a national service program, spoke about the importance of building coalitions to advocate for important causes and solve problems. Conroy offered anecdotes about the people he met while walking the state this summer, saying their stories illustrated much about the economic problems that Massachusetts faces.

Bob Massie, a former candidate for lieutenant governor, said he is in the race “to see capitalism move to a next step . . . to be sustainable and just.’’

Marisa DeFranco, a little-known immigration attorney, may have offered what might have been the night’s biggest surprise, punctuating her responses with fiery appeals to fight Washington.

“I fight the federal government for a living,’’ she said. “I fight the true David versus Goliath.’’

The sixth candidate, engineer Herb Robinson, made the crowd laugh with a few one-liners about his girth and his marijuana use, but otherwise looked nervous and uncertain on many questions.

But it was Warren who had the most to lose. Just weeks after getting into the race, she has sucked up much of the oxygen in the race, with support from Democratic establishment groups pouring in, and a commanding lead among Democrats, according to a poll released this week.

Last night, Warren attempted to build on that momentum as she worked to differentiate herself from the other Democrats with a message against government regulation of small businesses, normally a Republican appeal. She said small business “job creators’’ were overburdened by paperwork and recounted her experience in the Obama administration, boiling down the mortgage disclosure form to a single page.

“We’ve got to make [regulations] clearer and stronger, so that everyone has a chance to be able to prosper,’’ she said.

Moderated by UMass Lowell chancellor and former Democratic congressman Martin Meehan with questions from college students, the debate included more than a few frivolous questions, including a demand that the candidates compare themselves with a superhero.

“I’d have to be the Incredible Hulk, right?’’ said Robinson, who stood up to show his heft. Warren called herself Wonder Woman, who “had such a cool outfit and bracelets.’’ Khazei compared himself with Flash, mocking his propensity to drive, move, and talk too fast.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman. Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.