THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Senate race appears off to early start

Brown hits airwaves to rebut intensifying Democratic attacks

Scott Brown has an $8 million war chest. Scott Brown has an $8 million war chest.
By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / May 12, 2011

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In recent days, Senator Scott Brown has hit local television airwaves to rebut a negative advertisement, Democrats have gleefully seized on a national security gaffe Brown made, and new ads, fund-raising appeals, tweets, and countertweets have raced across the Internet.

The election is 18 months away, and the Democrats have yet to coalesce around a major challenger to face off against the popular Republican senator. But over the last two weeks, it has begun to look and feel like the start of the campaign season for a Senate seat Democrats hope to regain.

“It never stopped,’’ Brown said during a television interview broadcast Sunday. “So, hey, whatever, bring it on.’’

Brown can back up that challenge with poll numbers that suggest he is the state’s most popular politician and with a campaign chest of more than $8 million.

But the last two weeks have previewed a potential Democratic game plan that includes assistance from outside groups to overcome a fund-raising disadvantage and to help paint Brown as too conservative for the state. And Brown’s national security gaffe — in which he repeatedly said he had seen photographs purporting to show a dead Osama bin Laden — provided Democrats with a talking point in their attempt to portray him as a lightweight.

“There’s this perception now that Scott Brown is — I don’t want to use the term unbeatable — but we start to see these cracks,’’ said Andrew Reeves, a political science professor at Boston University.

Reeves agrees with other observers that falling victim to the bin Laden photo hoax was not, in itself, a major stumble. But if similar episodes emerge, the anecdotes can be used to illustrate a broader impression being promoted by his critics that Brown is not up to a job in the Senate.

Brown has said little about the ruse, beyond a brief statement issued last week to clarify his remarks. Yesterday, a spokesman refused to say if Brown would accept the CIA’s offer to see the authentic photos at its Virginia headquarters.

He has been much more vigorous in countering a $1 million advertising campaign from the League of Women Voters, in which a television ad shows a wheezing young girl breathing from a machine. The ad criticizes Brown for his vote to strip the EPA of its power to regulate greenhouse gases, suggesting that it could endanger the health of sick children.

“When Scott Brown voted to reduce clean air standards that reduced smoke stack and tailpipe emissions, just imagine what it could have done [pause] to her,’’ the ad states.

Brown has mounted an aggressive response, calling the ad unfair and accusing the League of damaging its nonpartisan reputation by serving as a pawn for the Democratic Party. He has put up a video on his website that seeks donations to “send a message to the mudslingers that their negative attacks won’t work.’’

And he has organized a “Women for Brown’’ fund-raiser for later this month, in an attempt to build his own coalition of female voters. His adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, has also tweeted his opposition to the ads.

The campaign appears to be taking a lesson from the Swift Boat ads that undermined Senator John F. Kerry’s presidential bid when he failed to respond to them quickly.

“I really find it reprehensible what they’re doing,’’ said Jennifer Nassour, chairwoman of the state GOP, which has filed a complaint about the ads with the Federal Elections Commission. “It’s not telling the whole story of what actually happened. They are trying to pull at people’s heartstrings.’’

Fehrnstrom insisted Brown is focused on his Senate work and not in campaign mode because “the election is still 18 months away and it’s too early to engage voters for a contest that is so far in the future.’’

But Brown has been holding fund-raisers around the state in recent weeks and continues to draw consistent media coverage, which was boosted by the release of his memoir in February. He was also caught on video soliciting money from the conservative billionaire Koch brothers.

Despite all the buzz from Democrats, there is still deep concern among party leaders that they lack a candidate with the name recognition and political resume to mount a serious challenge to the incumbent, who could still be considered vulnerable because of the Democratic Party’s dominance in the state.

One name that has intrigued some Democratic leaders and grassroots activists is Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor and senior White House adviser on consumer issues. Warren has not indicated any public interest in the Senate so far, but her White House tenure could be in jeopardy because of GOP Senate opposition to her leading the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a new agency she is helping to establish.

The pool of Democratic contenders is now four: Bob Massie, a former lieutenant governor nominee; Alan Khazei, a cofounder of City Year; Marisa DeFranco, a Salem immigration lawyer; and Mayor Setti Warren of Newton, who entered the race earlier this week and is not related to Elizabeth Warren.

Still others are weighing a run, including former state lawmaker Warren Tolman, who acknowledged yesterday that he has been “encouraged to think about it.’’

In his introductory speech Tuesday, Setti Warren sounded many themes Democrats plan to use against Brown.

“I believe Scott Brown is an honorable man, but he’s not being the independent voice many of us wanted,’’ Warren said. “He has voted 87 percent of the time with his Republican leaders in Washington, preserving tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and questioning the science behind global climate change.’’

Like Warren, Democratic leaders have been working hard to align Brown with more conservative party leaders, such as Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, in an attempt to portray him as out of step with the Massachusetts Republican tradition of Governor William F. Weld and Senator Edward W. Brooke.

“It’s a good strategy,’’ said Peter Ubertaccio, chairman of the political science department at Stonehill College.

“The question is if his personal appeal to Democrats and independents overcomes that.’’

Frank Phillips and Glen Johnson of the Globe staff and correspondent Sarah Thomas contributed to this report. Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.