New polls this week show Sen. Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts leaping ahead of Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren, as one of the closely watched Senate campaigns of 2012 is about to get under way in earnest.
The race, set to ramp up following Tuesday's Massachusetts primary vote, important for two big reasons: the symbolism and the simple math.
On the math front, Republicans hope to take control of the Senate and holding on to Senator Brown's seat could be key.
Symbolically, the outcome could reveal whether a Republican senator can deepen his roots in a "blue state" that usually votes Democratic, or whether he will be unseated by an unabashed champion of anti-Wall-Street populism.
The latest poll, released Sunday by Western New England University, shows Brown's support at 49 percent of registered voters, compared with 41 percent for Ms. Warren.
That echoes a Rasmussen poll released last week, surveying likely voters, with showed Brown at 49 percent to Warren's 44 percent.
Both candidates have some national name recognition: Warren for her combative tone as head of a congressionally appointed oversight panel on bank bailouts, and Brown for his upset win in an early 2010 special election after the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D).
It's probably too early to read much into the polls other than that a close race may lie ahead. Brown isn't in a commanding position, while Warren is within striking distance. One early February poll showed Warren with a slight lead, for example.
As with other hot Senate races, significant amounts of outside money are expected to flow into the advertising campaigns.
Then, in a tactical shift in December, the group attacked her as pandering to big banks. The Annenberg Public Policy Center, in its FactCheck project, called the ad "absurd" for implying that Warren had an administrative role in the bank bailouts, when in fact she chaired a watchdog panel about them.
Both candidates are casting themselves as advocates of the middle class, though with differing ideological spins on what that means.
Brown's Senate website says he "has fought for lower taxes, less government spending, and pro-growth policies that will put people back to work."
Warren's website says the US needs oversight of Wall Street to prevent financial crises, and government investment "in first-class education, in basic infrastructure, in 21st century manufacturing, and in research."
The two are articulate advocates for their views, Brown as a pickup-driving member of the Army National Guard and Warren as an academic researcher on challenges facing middle-class families.
Warren is expected to formally earn her slot as the Democratic challenger to Brown in the primary election Tuesday.