Republican incumbent Scott Brown criticized Democrat Elizabeth Warren for withholding records that might show she claimed Native American ancestry in job applications, while she assailed him for supporting billionaires and opposing legislation to create new jobs, in their first debate in the U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts.
Warren pounded Brown over his record, including his opposition to a bill to provide equal pay for women doing the same work as men. Brown portrayed Warren as eager to tax job- creating businesses while collecting a six-figure income as a Harvard Law professor. Both sought to stay on the offensive last night, lobbing broadsides at each other while trying to deflect criticism.
"Senator Brown can say all he wants, but he has voted," Warren said. "He cannot back off on how he's voted."
"Let's get rid of the myth that Professor Warren is a tax-cutter and a fiscal conservative," Brown said. "I've never voted for a tax increase. There's only one person who wants to spend your hard-earned money, and that's Professor Warren."
The encounter between Warren, who won a debate scholarship at George Washington University, and Brown, who has appeared in at least a dozen similar forums since entering public service in the 1990s, featured sharp exchanges on topics ranging from education and climate change to the war in Afghanistan and sanctions against Iran. It was a much-anticipated first look at how the two would respond in a direct confrontation.
Brown set the tone, opening with criticism he leveled earlier this year after a local newspaper reported Warren's assertions of Native American ancestry. It spoke "volumes" that Warren hasn't done more to disclose whether identifying herself as American Indian boosted her employment prospects at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, he said.
"Professor Warren claimed she was a Native American, a person of color, and as you can see, she is not," Brown said. "When you are a United States senator, you have to pass a test, and that's one of character and honesty and truthfulness. And I believe, and others believe, that she's failed that test."
Warren said her ancestry was a matter of family lore, for which she didn't think to seek documentation while growing up in Oklahoma.
"The people who have hired me have spoken and they've been clear about it: I didn't get an advantage because of my background," she said. "The question has been asked and answered. I think the senator just doesn't like the answer."
The debate at WBZ-TV in Boston was the first of four scheduled before Nov. 6, when voters will determine the outcome of one of the most closely watched and expensive races for the Senate, where Democrats are fighting to hold a majority. Four of five polls released this week showed Warren with an advantage after the two candidates have traded leads for months.
In a survey released Sept. 17 by Suffolk University, Warren led Brown 48 percent to 44 percent. While that falls within the poll's margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, it compares to a May survey that showed Brown ahead of Warren, 48 percent to 47 percent when the margin was 5 points.
There was no knock-out, decisive winner yesterday, said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.
"I think Republicans are going to think Scott Brown won and Democrats will think Elizabeth Warren won," he said. "It was message sent, message received." Supporters of each candidate lined the street outside the TV studio before the debate. Warren signs outnumbered those for Brown.
Brown said the lack of regulatory and tax certainty is why the economy is sagging, and help to explain why businesses are afraid to hire. Warren's plans would exacerbate that, he said.
Brown's assertion that she favors raising taxes by $3.4 trillion is "just not real," Warren said. She said Brown's refusal to extend tax cuts for middle-income families, without also applying them to top earners, shows he cares only about the rich.
"This race really may be for the control of the Senate," Warren said, and with that, Brown didn't disagree.
Brown, 53, pointed to his bipartisan record while painting Warren as a provocateur who will worsen political polarization in Washington. He called himself a moderate who supports abortion-rights and said he's fought for women since childhood, when he protected his mother from her violent male companions.
For Warren, 63, the forum provided an opportunity to examine the parts of Brown's record he doesn't tout, such as his co-sponsorship of legislation that would have permitted employers to strip their health plans of birth control on religious or moral grounds, and his vote to continue subsidies for oil companies. She sought to tie him to the national Republican Party, which is unpopular in Democratic-leaning Massachusetts even as its former governor, Mitt Romney, tops the ticket.
Both candidates walked into the debate with advantages. Brown's upset victory in 2010 for the post held by the late Ted Kennedy for almost 47 years was fueled by his debate performances against Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley. She was considered a shoo-in before he drew attention with one- liners and what the Boston Globe called "pointed attacks."
Warren's rise from scholar to Democratic star grew from her fight to create a federal consumer protection agency, and her simplification of political ideology into succinct campaign themes. The race is her first, and she received a boost Thursday when Boston newspapers reported that Mayor Thomas M. Menino would endorse her.
Brown, who previously served in the legislature, is the only Republican in the state's congressional delegation. He's served in the National Guard for more than three decades and is a ranking member on the Armed Services Committee.
Going into the debate, Brown's cultivation of a down-to-earth image had boosted his favorability ratings, which have been consistently higher than Warren's and are seen as one of his advantages.