Brown and Warren Exchange Barbs in Debate

Brown and Warren Exchange Barbs in Debate

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - September 21, 2012

Less than two minutes into last night's U.S. Senate debate in Massachusetts, incumbent Republican Scott Brown laid into Democrat Elizabeth Warren on the controversy surrounding her claimed Native American heritage.

Warren has said she is "a Native American, a person of color," Brown noted. "As you can see, she is not." Earlier this year, news surfaced that Warren had listed herself as a Native American in a faculty directory at Harvard Law School, and Republicans questioned whether Warren's minority status was real, and whether she had used it to benefit her career. Brown began Thursday night’s debate in Boston by saying that the issue raised questions about his opponent’s character.

And from that point forward, the exchanges in a contest that could determine the balance of power in the Senate were defined by fiery barbs and sarcastic chuckles.

As he has over the past few months, Brown implored Warren to release her personnel files from the universities at which she has worked to prove her minority status had nothing to do with her hiring. Her refusal to do so “speaks volumes,” Brown said. “When you are a U.S. senator, you have to pass a test and that’s one of character and honesty and truthfulness. I believe and others believe she’s failed that test.” Warren fought back: "The people who hired me have spoken and they’ve been clear about it. I didn’t get an advantage because of my background.” As for the validity of that background, she recalled stories her mother would share about the family heritage, noting, “I am who I am.”

The Native American issue dogged the Warren campaign for several weeks earlier this year and raised questions about how the first-time candidate’s campaign would hold up. Warren, though, pulled ahead in polls released this week, shortly after her populist address to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. The RCP Average finds her edging Brown by 2.6 percentage points.

The former Obama administration official tried to steer the debate toward policies that could benefit the middle class, which she has tried to make her central focus in the campaign. She hit Brown for voting against a trio of jobs bills, recalling how a Massachusetts man she met on the campaign trail would have been impacted by the legislation. Brown called one of the bills a show vote that would have been too costly, and accused Warren of favoring tax increases.

Warren’s strategy has been to pin Brown to national Republicans in this blue state that President Obama is expected to carry handily and drive down his likability score. Brown must attract a sizable portion of independents and moderate Democrats in this presidential election year race, and has been presenting himself as a moderate "everyman" while painting his opponent as a Cambridge elitist. The pair have been running tough campaigns against each other for several months now. In their first in-person, head-to-head debate, their respective lines of attack shone brightly through.

Brown repeatedly referred to his opponent as “Professor Warren,” hoping to alienate her from the working-class voters beyond Boston and Cambridge he is trying to attract. In turn, Warren tried to tie Brown to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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