In their debate Monday night, Senate candidates Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren each sought high ground as the one who could do the most to heal the economy, and each sought to undermine the other's personal credibility.
The televised jousting came as polls suggest that both character issues and substantive policy questions could make a difference in the Massachusetts election, which is one of the most hotly contested in the United States.
The role of government in the economy has emerged as a central issue in this Senate race. On Monday, Senator Brown (R) tied his reelection bid to the idea that low taxes and light regulation represent the best hope to revive job creation. Ms. Warren, the Democratic challenger in a largely Democratic state, argued that a short-term jobs bill, plus longer-term government investments, is the recipe for a healthier economy.
But, perhaps as important as any policy position, another question remained at the forefront in the debate: Which of the two has the stronger character to serve in the Senate?
Brown has criticized Warren over her claim to "minority" status in her academic career, as well as over her work with corporate clients as a law professor. Warren has expressed concern about Brown's ties to interest groups including oil companies, banks, and antitax millionaires.
During one response, Warren said lawyers involved in one of her cases viewed Brown's assertions as "deliberately dishonest." (The candidates have sparred over whether Warren's work was aimed at benefiting asbestos victims.)
At another point Brown, who has cultivated a nice-guy image, drew boos from some in the audience when he cut off an attempted interruption by Warren with: "Excuse me, I'm not a student in your classroom. Please let me respond."
At other times Brown was deferential, saying that Warren is a strong teacher and that he doesn't question the quality her academic work.
That was part of a carefully calibrated effort, though, as Brown continued to press his concerns about Warren's claim to native American heritage.
"No one's questioning what her parents told her" about Cherokee and Delaware background, Brown said. "When you're making a disclosure such as that, when you're actually looking at taking something that is really meant for somebody who has been truly disadvantaged by years of discrimination, I think it's something you really need to double-check on," he said.
Brown also said it is troubling that it took Warren five weeks this spring to acknowledge that she reported herself to employers as a minority.
Warren, pressed by moderator David Gregory of NBC about whether she considers herself a minority, said, "I consider myself as having a native American background." She cited statements by professors who recruited her as evidence that she didn't use that status "to get any advantage" in her employment.
She also tried to erode Brown’s credibility as a bipartisan moderate in the Senate. “He has signed an extremist right-wing pledge never to raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires,” she said after one Brown response.
On policy, perhaps the most telling exchange of the night was prompted by someone in the audience at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell. A student said she's not sure if she'll be able to find a job when she graduates, and she wondered what the candidates will do about the economy.
Warren’s call for a jobs bill in the short run is designed to put more paychecks into a stagnant economy. She said Brown had opposed similar legislation from President Obama last year. For the long run, she urged public investment in things like roads, clean energy, and scientific research.
Brown said employers are hobbled by uncertainty about the future course of policies regarding taxes and regulation. He said that his big concern is how future generations will pay back their debts and that his rival is pitching "job-destroying messages."
With a few weeks to go, the race for this Senate seat remains too close to call.