In the second debate in the Massachusetts race for U.S. Senate, Republican incumbent Scott Brown elicited boos from the audience when he cited Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as his model jurist.
His Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Warren, beamed as the jeers overshadowed the cheering when Brown mentioned Scalia, who opposes abortion and gay-marriage rights. Brown quickly rounded out his answer with three other choices, including Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was appointed by President Barack Obama. When pressed by moderator David Gregory of NBC News to select only one, he declined.
“That’s the beauty of being an independent,” Brown said. “I don’t need to pick one.”
The forum, the first before a live audience, had Brown and Warren sitting at a table with Gregory before a crowd of more than 4,500 at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The moderator often interrupted the candidates, who returned the favor, as both sought to distance themselves from one another’s characterizations.
Warren’s campaign jumped on the Supreme Court answer after the debate ended, calling out Brown for the remark and highlighting some of Scalia’s past comments on abortion, birth control and gender equality. Scalia’s positions “speak loudly about Scott Brown’s values,” Mindy Myers, Warren’s campaign manager, said in an e-mailed statement.
Warren named Richard Lugar as the Republican senator she could see herself working with, before it was pointed out that the Indiana lawmaker’s 36-year tenure expires three months from now. She said she’d work with anyone to change how mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac operate, without naming names.
That played off one of Brown’s themes that he’s pushed on the campaign trail: that Warren would vote “100 percent” of the time with her party at a time when a “dysfunctional” Washington needs people who compromise.
Brown said he’d fight for unions and called his consumer-advocate opponent a “hired gun” for corporations, while Warren said Brown’s portrayal of bipartisanship didn’t square with his fundraising for Republican control of Congress. Warren charged that Brown votes in lockstep with the “extremist” agenda of the national Republican Party, which is unpopular in Democratic-leaning Massachusetts.
Brown wavered when asked if he’d be a “reliable ally” for Mitt Romney if the Republican nominee is elected president, and whether he’d vote for Senator Mitch McConnell as majority leader should Republicans take control of the chamber.
“I work for the people of Massachusetts,” he said.
The equivocation reflects the fine line Brown walks as he campaigns to remain the only Republican in Massachusetts’ congressional delegation. Less than 12 percent of the state’s electorate is registered with the party. Obama crushed Republican John McCain in 2008, 61 percent to 36 percent, and polls show he’ll do the same this year even as Romney, the state’s former governor, tops the ticket.
“I’m the daughter of a janitor who ended up as a professor at Harvard Law School and working for the president of the United States,” Warren, 63, said. “I have worked hard for 30 years to make the legal system just a little more fair for people. I think that’s a good test of character.”
The race is one of the most closely watched and expensive in the Senate, where Democrats are fighting to hold a majority. Seven of nine polls taken last month showed Warren leading.
“We’re going to have some very, very real challenges right now -- the challenges are getting our economy moving, getting our debt, our deficit, taxes, spending, jobs, national security,” said Brown, 53. Washington needs politicians “who will actually work together, and that’s what I’ve been doing and I need your vote. I can’t do this alone.”
While no clear winner emerged, both candidates improved on their performances in the first debate, said Peter Ubertaccio, director of the Martin Institute at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts.
Brown came off as less aggressive and more senatorial, and he more clearly explained his policy positions, while Warren responded better to some of Brown’s attacks, Ubertaccio said.
On the Dream Act, which would provide a path to legal residency for some people who are in the U.S. illegally, Warren said she’d back Obama’s efforts to pass it. Brown called it “a form of back-door amnesty.”
On the war in Afghanistan, Brown said he would defer to generals on the ground to determine when to bring troops home. Warren called for a speedier withdrawal and the domestic re-appropriation of the $2 billion a week spent fighting there.
Brown revived and tweaked one of the most memorable lines he used in his debate with Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Democrat he beat in the 2010 special election for the seat held by the late Ted Kennedy.
“Excuse me, I’m not a student in your classroom, please let me respond,” Brown said at one point to Warren, who was trying to interject.