Brown-Warren debate: Jabs span from tax policy to personal character

Locked in a tight race, Sen. Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts and Democratic rival Elizabeth Warren pulled no punches in their first debate Thursday night. At the end, both were still standing.

Michael Dwyer/AP
Sen. Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren stand on the set before their first debate along with moderator Jon Keller (c.), Thursday, Sept. 20, in Boston.

One of the hottest US Senate races in the nation got hotter Thursday night, as Sen. Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren appeared both self-assured and feisty in the first of several televised debates.

Ms. Warren put pressure on Senator Brown to defend his voting record as a Republican serving one of the most Democratic states in the nation. And she sought to put the race in the context of its larger stakes: A vote for Brown could help put other Republicans, with views much more conservative than his, in charge of the US Senate.

Brown cast himself as an independent champion of common-sense, middle-of-the-road positions – and his rival as out of touch with the needs of a still-struggling economy.

"The criticism you're hearing [from Warren is] I don't want to raise taxes – guilty as charged," Brown said at one point. 

He also called Warren's personal character into question, using their face-to-face meeting to repeat a concern he has raised before in comments to the press: Did she use an unverified claim to native-American heritage to get a leg up in an academic career that landed her ultimately at Harvard Law School?

Warren said that in her childhood, her parents told her of Cherokee and Delaware Indian ancestry, and that she didn't question that story. During her academic career, she put herself on a list of "minority" professors in a national directory of law schools. But in the debate, Warren repeated her prior assertions that questions about the matter have been answered. People who helped hire her at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard have said the issue of minority status didn't come up during the hiring decision.

Brown also sought to undermine Warren's reputation as a fighter for downtrodden workers and middle-class families. He said she had earned large fees from an insurance company for work opposing the claims of asbestos victims. 

Warren rebutted his charge, saying a Boston Globe investigation concluded that Brown's characterization of the case was misleading.

As the debate ranged from issues of character to national policy, one thing stood out: no major missteps. Neither candidate backed down against the other; neither was at a loss for words. 

When Brown touted his service in the Army National Guard in answering a national security question, Warren was ready with references to the big role that military service has played in her family.

When Warren said Brown was too cozy with oil companies, Brown said his goal was to cut gas-pump prices for consumers, not to protect corporate profits.

Brown sought to defend himself against Warren's gains in the polls with an important bloc of voters: women. He emphasized his support for abortion rights and contraceptive care as part of health insurance. And he said that, as a child, he had stood up against a stepfather who was abusive toward his mother. 

On the economy and tax policy, the candidates echoed the presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Warren said a balanced approach like the one President Obama advocates, including higher taxes on the rich as well as spending cuts, is needed to heal the job market and fix federal deficits. She called for government investments in infrastructure, while pledging not to raise taxes "on working families." She said Brown, by contrast, has aligned himself with tax breaks for those in the top 2 percent in income.

The election "goes back to the same basic question," she said. "Whose side do you stand on?"

"I'm on the taxpayers' side," Brown shot back. He, like Mr. Romney, argues that keeping taxes low for everyone, while focusing on curbing spending in Washington, is the key to reviving job growth. 

Near the end of the debate, Warren said a vote for Brown could end up helping Republicans retake control of the Senate. Giving an example of what that could mean, she said Sen. James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma, who has called global warming a "hoax," would have powerful sway on environmental issues.

"You're not running against Jim Inhofe.You're running against me," Brown said.

The race remains a close one. Nationally, it's unclear whether Republicans will be able to push to a 50-seat majority or higher in the Senate, where they now hold 47 seats. Brown's and Warren's next public debate is set for Oct. 1.

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