Has Elizabeth Warren put the 'Cherokee issue' behind her?

Elizabeth Warren has won the Democratic nomination to challenge US Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts. But questions about her claim to Native American ancestry continue to dog her.

Michael Dwyer/AP
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren looks to the audience after addressing the Democratic State Convention in Springfield, Mass. on Saturday, June 2, 2012.

After many days of tripping over a personal issue that knocked her off-message, Elizabeth Warren says she’s back on track to compete with incumbent Scott Brown for a US Senate seat in Massachusetts.

In Springfield Saturday, Ms. Warren won the Democratic nomination to run against Sen. Brown – something she’s tried to do for months while having to repeatedly answer questions about her claim to ancestral ties to the Cherokee tribe of Native Americans.

Warren, a Harvard Law School professor and consumer advocate, won enough delegate votes at the party convention – a record 96 percent – to avoid a primary election in which she might have had to run against fellow Democrat and immigration attorney Marisa DeFranco.

Polls show Warren and Brown in a dead heat.

According to the latest Western New England University poll of registered voters, Warren leads Brown 45-43 percent (within the poll’s 4.4-point margin of error). A similar poll three months ago had Brown ahead 49-41 percent.

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A new Boston Globe poll, on the other hand, has Brown ahead by two percentage points (39-37 percent) – the same spread as in March.

At the same time, according to the Globe poll reported Saturday, questions over Warren’s handling of the Cherokee issue – awkward and apparently less than forthcoming at times – remains at least a potential problem for her.

“The vast majority of voters (72 percent) said the issue would not affect their vote, but 31 percent of self-described independents – a critical voting bloc – said the issue makes them less likely to support Warren in November,” the Globe reported. “The Harvard professor’s popularity has also risen one percentage point, to 48 percent, since the Globe polled in March, but the percentage of detractors has climbed more precipitously, by nine points to 32 percent.”

Meanwhile, Brown’s job approval rating is at 60 percent, with 31 percent of voters saying they disapprove of his performance in Washington.

“Overall, this shows the strengths that Brown has and it shows the problems, obviously, that the Warren campaign has had,’’ said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, who conducted the poll.

Although Brown sometimes is portrayed as a moderate Republican – he says the Bay State’s same-sex marriage law and Roe v. Wade on abortion are settled law, and he voted to end “don’t ask, don’t tell” on gays serving in the US military – Warren is not buying it.

“Whoever he once was, I can tell you who he is now,” she said in her party convention speech. “Scott Brown is a Wall Street Republican. A big oil Republican. A Mitt Romney Republican.”

Warren hopes her latest statements on her Native American ties (family lore has it that her great-great grandmother was Cherokee) have put the issue behind her.

Most recently, she says that she did tell the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University of this ethnic background, but that it was after she had been hired to teach law at those two schools and therefore not a means of gaining employment by claiming minority status.

Warren grew up in Oklahoma, where Cherokee ancestral ties are not uncommon. But she has provided no documentation to confirm her heritage.

"Growing up, my mother and my grandparents and my aunts and uncles often talked about our family’s Native American heritage," Warren said in the statement to the Boston Globe Wednesday night. "As a kid, I never thought to ask them for documentation – what kid would? – but that doesn’t change the fact that it is a part of who I am and part of my family heritage."

"The people involved in recruiting and hiring me for my teaching jobs, including Charles Fried – solicitor-general under Ronald Reagan who has publicly said he voted for Scott Brown in 2010 – have said unequivocally they were not aware of my heritage and that it played no role in my hiring," Warren said. "Public documents that reporters have examined also show I did not benefit from my heritage when applying to college or law school."

Will this put an end to a controversy that has dogged Warren, giving Brown and his supporters an opportunity to question Warren’s character and veracity? The answer to that question may be key to how this closely-watched US Senate race turns out.

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