Democratic candidates for US Senate debate issues from economy to the ‘99 percent’

EASTON — Democratic candidates vying to face off against Scott Brown in the US Senate race discussed a number of issues in their debate tonight, from the economy and big oil to the middle class and the “99 percent.’’

Perceived front-runner Elizabeth Warren appeared to do little to spoil that status as she went up against four other candidates in the early season debate at Stonehill College.

“For more than half a century we grew America’s middle class, [but] we started about 30 years ago in just a different direction. We lost our way, and we have increasingly become a country that’s about those who already made it,’’ Warren said. “A country that says GE [General Electric company] pays nothing in taxes while we ask students to take on more debt.’’

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The debate was held in front of about 300 people at Stonehill’s Joseph Martin Institute for Law and Society and was sponsored by Wickedlocal.com and WCVB Channel 5. Along with Warren, candidates on hand included Tom Conroy, James C. King, Marisa DeFranco, and Herb Robinson.

The strongest challenge to Warren so far has come from Conroy, the Yale-educated state representative from Wayland. Conroy uses his business education and experience in a conservative district as reasons why he would be better equipped to challenge Brown than Warren, a Harvard professor.

But former federal prosecutor King, who runs a Boston law firm, made a big splash in his first public forum as a candidate, as he hopes to become a contender. He outspoke the field early and often as most of the forum centered around the economy.

“I put bid riggers and price fixers in jail, and I think the same needs to be done in the securities areas and the financial services area when the level of fraud reaches the level we’ve seen in the last three years,’’ King said. “The Justice Department needs to be more vigilant in its enforcement of criminal laws in the financial services sector.’’

Conroy touted his defeat of an incumbent Republican in 2006 to gain a seat in the State House as a reason he is “the guy’’ to run against Brown.

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As the forum turned toward the environment and alternative energy, Warren drew applause by attacking big oil.

“We need to stop subsidizing the oil industry,’’ she said. “We support one of the most profitable industries in this country. Green energy is actually competing against a subsidized industry, and it makes no sense.’’

Early on, when asked about third-party advertisements and attack ads on television, Warren said that third parties, like the League of Women Voters, have the right to put their message out there, but added that she was against negative advertising.

The comment immediately drew a response from the Brown camp.

“It is sad that when given the opportunity to join Scott Brown in asking outside special interest groups on both sides to stay out of the Massachusetts Senate race, professor Warren refused,’’ said Jim Barnett, Brown’s campaign manager, in a statement. “But what’s worse is her hypocritical claim that she would denounce outside negative ads when just three weeks ago she was cheering on a $2 million attack ad campaign.’’

The format was more of a forum than a debate, with questions directed at each candidate without the traditionally confrontational rebuttals. Responses were not timed, but moderator Chazy Dowaliby, editor of The Patriot Ledger and Brockton Enterprise newspapers, ran a tight ship and cut candidates off before they could meander.

Warren stuck to her guns, relying on her experience in working to establish a national consumer protection agency.

North Shore immigration attorney DeFranco, of Middleton, and software engineer Robinson rounded out the field. DeFranco played to the crowd, drawing laughs with her quips and applause with bold statements about the economy and the voice of the “99 percent.’’

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“Union is a five-letter word, not a four letter word,’’ DeFranco said.

Warren has been running neck and neck in some polls with Brown, who established himself as a fierce campaigner after his wide but surprising out-dueling of state Attorney General Martha Coakley in 2009, to become the first Republican to hold that Senate seat since Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. in 1953. Brown succeeded the late Edward M. Kennedy.

Warren looked comfortable on the big stage and never stumbled over her words, though her opponents did little to break her stride.

At the debate, Peter N. Ubertaccio, a political scientist and director of Stonehill’s Martin Institute, said, “The most fascinating dynamic of this race is the degree to which the party has coalesced around a candidate who has never put a campaign together before or won a race. They clearly believe in her message and are singularly focused on retaking the senate seat.’’

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