Republican Sen. Scott Brown and his Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren went head-to-head Thursday night in the first of four debates, as they battle for the Senate seat from Massachusetts in one of the most high-profile contests in the 2012 political landscape.
Brown, who won the seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy in a special election upset in 2010, attacked Warren's character several times during the hour-long face-off, bringing up that Warren misrepresented herself as a native American to gain minority status when applying for teaching positions; that she receives a six-figure salary for minimal work as a Harvard professor while representing herself as an advocate for working families; and that she worked as an attorney for a large insurance firm in a case that denied workers' claims for asbestos poisoning.
Brown frequently referred to the Democratic nominee as "professor," a nod to her tenure at Harvard, and appeared to be attempting to tag Warren as an elitist. Brown also made several references to his own middle-class roots, mentioning protecting his mother from an abusive stepfather and fueling his pickup truck.
Warren responded that she was part native American, although she lacks documentary proof, and that the media had vetted the controversy and found that she had received no special favors for minority status. She also said she worked hard for her professorial standing and was proud of it. For her part, Warren kept her focus on Brown's voting record.
She cited Brown's vote against the Paycheck Fairness Act and that he was a co-sponsor of the Blunt amendment, which would have exempted employers from
providing coverage for contraception on moral grounds, as evidence that
Brown doesn't have women's best interests in mind.
Brown claimed he has always been an advocate for women and that his support for the Blunt amendment was aimed at protecting religious freedom. But Warren kept returning to his voting record, noting that Brown has refused to end tax breaks for oil companies even if it means letting taxes rise on the rest of the population.
"He has voted that billions of dollars of your tax money should go to the oil industry," she said. "When you look at his votes, Sen. Brown is always standing with the millionaires and billionaires."
But Brown insisted that Warren was misrepresenting his record, and
defended his stance in favor of letting all tax breaks expire, rather
than just letting tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans expire, as a
vote to protect job creators.
"I'm not going to raise taxes on our job creators -- those small and medium-sized businesses, those sub-s corporations and others who passed through ordinary income and are considered the so-called wealthy -- I'm going to fight for every taxpayer," he said.
Warren countered that Brown was willing "to hold 98 percent of Americans hostage" to protect the wealthiest two percent.
Brown cited a report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to argue that President Obama's policies -- which he called Warren's during the debate -- would kill jobs, and framed himself as the best candidate to create jobs.
Warren several times mentioned that she supported President Obama's policies and his re-election. She appeared to want to draw Brown out on who he backed for president, but Brown made no mention of the presidential race. Recently, Brown has distanced himself from remarks GOP candidate Mitt Romney made regarding 47 percent of the American people, whom Romney characterized as seeing themselves as victims entitled to government assistance and lacking in personal responsibility. Brown has said in recent media reports that he still backs Romney for president.
Toward the end of the debate, both Warren and Brown mentioned that their race could decide control of the Senate.
"It's not just about Sen. Brown's vote, this is about the votes of all of the Republicans," she said, warning that if Republicans regained control of the Senate, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who denies the existence of climate change, would become chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
Prior to the debate four of the five most recent polls gave Warren a lead over Brown, although the latest poll had Brown with a slight edge.