As the Massachusetts Senate candidates prepare for Monday night’s second debate in the race (at 7p.m. EDT on CBS Boston / C-SPAN), new polls show Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren in the lead — but within the margin of error — over incumbent GOP Senator Scott Brown. The most recent poll by WBUR/Mass Inc. puts Warren 2 points ahead of Brown, 46% to 44%, with 9% undecided among those asked for their initial preference. When including respondents who said they were “leaning toward” a candidate, Warren’s lead increased to 49% compared to Brown’s 45%.
Brown set an aggressive tone in the first debate by launching a character attack on Warren, claiming that she has sought undue advantage for having partial Native American heritage. Warren calmly rebutted the attack and appeared to maintain the upper hand in the debate as Brown became more flustered. Debate performance notwithstanding, Brown’s campaign doubled-down on the negative as Brown reiterated the charges. Senate campaign staffers were also caught on camera doing “war whoops” and “tomahawk chops” at a Warren campaign rally.
Tonight’s debate, moderated by David Gregory of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” will be closely watched as both a warm-up for the first presidential debate on Weds evening and as the battle for control of the Senate hinges on a few down-to-the-wire states.
The Massachusetts race is one of several in which the polls have remained tighter that political analysts anticipated; Politico rates it as the most competitive Senate race in the country, noting also that “cutthroat” October funding decisions by the Democratic and Republican Parties could prove decisive as some campaigns are cut loose in order to fuel ad buys in others. Massachusetts Democrats are unlikely to be disappointed on that front, as the Warren campaign has been a marquee race throughout 2012.
Whether Warren decides to bite back tonight remains to be seen; she has worked hard to ensure that her likeability remains intact. But as neither candidate came out clearly ahead in the last debate – and with Brown prepared to continue his double-down on the negative character attacks – there isn’t a lot of time for either candidate to open up a lead. If Warren hopes to do so, there may not be room for business as usual.
After all, October is a cutthroat month.
PolicyMic will be covering all the events and speeches during the Warren-Brown debate live. For live updates bookmark and refresh this page – and cover the minute-by-minute w/ me @caitlinhowarth #MASen
7:17pm | We are about 1/3rd through tonight's debate and so far, it's a re-run of the first debate - except without even the mention of policy. Good to know David Gregory isn't afraid to dispense with the trivia and get to the real issues that matter.
7:30pm | A few pieces of policy made it into the conversation - as part of a debate over Senator Brown's voting record and whether he'd be a staunch vote for the GOP party line. Brown rejects the premise and counter-claims that Warren would be a lock vote for current Majority Leader Harry Reid. And ... wait for it ... a policy question has finally emerged on the national debt.
7:37pm | Brown states that he will not vote to raise taxes on anyone in the current economic climate; with upcoming vote on expiring payroll tax relief, which appears unlikely to be renewed before the election as deficit hawks pull back, Brown will be put to the vote on the issue.
7:50pm | Students ask pointed questions on jobs and immigration. While good to know that David Gregory has backup tonight, answers to the job question weren't nearly as cogent as the question itself. On the immigration question, Brown calls the DREAM Act an act of "backdoor amnesty" and draws vocal response from the audience, but calls for increase in H1-B visas. Warren concurs that this is where they differ - she states that she strongly supports the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform. For more on the topic, a fascinating conversation w/ 'outed' undocumented immigrant and well-known journalist Jose Antonio Vargas is taking place as major media debate whether to use the term "illegal" or "undocumented."
7:55pm | Long pause on "Who is your model Supreme Court justice?" Brown opts first for Scalia, runs the gamut to Sotomayor by the time he finishes. Warren backs fellow Harvard professor Elena Kagan. Surprised neither of them went old-school for someone from the Warren court or another ground-breaking era. David Gregory closes out with a question on whether Bobby Valentine should be kept on as manager for the Red Sox before giving both candidates time for closing statements, which tells you just about all you need to know regarding tonight's moderator.
Post-game | Tonight's debate between Brown and Warren began on familiar territory and stayed there. Moderator David Gregory posed few policy-related questions, focusing instead on the topics of the first debate (Warren's character, Brown's voting record) and such hardball issues as whether Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine should be kept on for another season. Students from UMass Lowell asked more probing questions on whether they would be able to find jobs after graduation, and on the candidates' positions vis-a-vis the DREAM Act and immigration. For Lowell residents living in the heart of Massachusett's blue collar woes, union jobs and open immigration don't usually go together. But although "Professor" Warren may stick out for her Cambridge credentials, it's not clear that Brown has a lock on the blue collar vote - particularly after the public withdrawal of support from Lowell hero Micky "Irish" Ward.
Final word: Tonight's debate won't move the dial much. Voters who would have been persuaded or leaning more to one side after the first debate are likely to trend in the same directions. Brown was still aggressive, Warren less so; neither came across as unlikeable, despite the barbs. And since David Gregory ran the debate like a pageant, it's worth noting that everyone looked very pretty. If the candidates have decided that these debates aren't going to provide the crucial moments to drive wedge issues home, then all eyes should be on the ad buys, the war chests and the ground game. Obama canvassers are likely to prioritize toss-up New Hampshire over safe-bet Massachusetts, as will Romney's camp, leaving both candidates with a lot of ground to cover over the next 30 days.