Scott Brown, Elizabeth Warren use face-to-face debate to amplify themes from Senate trail

In this image taken from television, Senate candidates Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren - separated by moderator Jon Keller - face off Thursday in their first debate.
In this image taken from television, Senate candidates Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren - separated by moderator Jon Keller - face off Thursday in their first debate. –John Blanding/Globe Staff

Senator Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren finally squared off face-to-face in a debate on Thursday night, and when they did, neither backed down from the criticisms they have lodged against each other from a distance on the campaign trail.

Brown, champing at the bit to get at Warren, pounced on the first question about their respective character to bluntly accuse the Harvard Law School professor of faking her claim to Native American heritage so she could gain an advantage in her career.

“Professor Warren claimed she was a Native American, a person of color. As you can see, she’s not. That being said, she checked the box,’’ Brown said.


Warren, however, stood there unfazed and defended the family lore upon which she bases her claim.

“I never asked anyone for any documentation, and I don’t know any kid who did,’’ she said. For emphasis, Warren added: “Never used it for getting into college, never used it for getting into law school.’’

And from the opening exchange on, a spirited debate unfolded in which Brown worked to seed doubts about “Professor Warren.’’ She worked just as hard to hold him accountable for votes he has cast since joining the Senate two years ago.

For Warren, the hour-long, unfiltered forum offered more upside, with Brown having near 100-percent name recognition and her still introducing herself to the electorate.

Standing just six feet away from the incumbent senator, separated only by the moderator, WBZ-TV political analyst Jon Keller, Warren had her first opportunity to let voters make a side-by-side comparison of her and Brown.

And when the red light atop the television cameras went off, and the audience at home and across the nation via C-Span tuned out, both candidates had largely achieved their objectives for the evening.

For Brown, it was to continue branding Warren as a tax-and-spend liberal and someone lacking his everyman image. The Republican called her “radical’’ several times.


“The first answer, every time, she’s obsessed with raising taxes,’’ the senator said of his opponent at one point.

For Warren, the goal was two-fold: to highlight votes Brown has cast that she believes have broken faith with the Massachusetts electorate, and also to underscore the consequences if he is reelected and helps tip the Senate into a Republican majority.

“Senator Brown can say all he wants. But he has voted,’’ she said at one point, reprising a comment she made throughout the evening.

Later, noting she wants to see President Obama reelected while Brown wants him replaced by the GOP nominee, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Warren added: “This really is about who you want as commander in chief.’’

In those twin contexts, the candidates gave their supporters no reason to feel any doubts about them.

But the debate also served as a solid introduction for that sliver of the electorate still undecided in their race.

Brown overwhelmed an unsuspecting Attorney General Martha Coakley in their January 2010 special election to succeed the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Two years later, though, it was clear Thursday that he is facing a worthy adversary.

Both he and Warren have three more debates next month to complete their pitch.

And those voters who have yet to make up their mind have two of the most capable candidates from which to choose since Republican Governor William F. Weld and Democratic incumbent John F. Kerry battled for a Massachusetts Senate seat in 1996.

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