Seven days ago, Mitt Romney’s supporters were euphoric. Most of the post-debate analysis from conservatives and liberals alike was that Romney advanced his candidacy while President Barack Obama took the night off. Now, a week later, in the aftermath of the third televised Massachusetts U.S. Senate debate, it is the supporters of the Democratic candidate, Elizabeth Warren, who should be smiling.
It’s too early to tell how all of the pundits will size up the encounter in Springfield. In my mind, first of all, there is little question that the debate itself – format, moderator, questions – was terrific. It was a fair and orderly discussion of real issues. Most importantly, the debate had a clear winner – Elizabeth Warren.
With the incumbent Senator Scott Brown there were no surprises. The debate game plan mirrored the strategy the campaign has used throughout his reelection bid – let Scott be Scott. To underscore his regular guy chops, he gave shout-outs to local eateries, Celtics legend Bob Cousy, and the local mayor. In answers to almost every question, Brown attempted to demonstrate that he was on top of things by meeting with or talking to somebody about something. The senator came across as comfortable, confident, and perfectly content to be spending his evening beyond Route 128. Consistency is what Brown is all about. He was neither better nor worse than he was in his first two debates.
So why was Warren the clear victor? Command, control, and passion. (In preparing for his next debate, Obama should forget the sparring partners and study Warren’s performance.)
In debates, the first question often overshadows all of the others. The previous televised debates began with long examinations of Warren’s claims about her ethnic roots. This was Brown territory. The third debate began with a question about jobs and then the Affordable Care Act. Brown must have been wondering what happened to the earlier script. Upon being asked a real question about a real issue, Warren was off and running. Whether the topic was college affordability, the federal role in education, regulation, or women’s issues, Warren was articulate and specific. Even on matters like foreign policy and the military, where Lieutenant Colonel Brown would seem to have the advantage, the challenger came across as knowledgeable. Indeed, Warren, unlike many other Democratic candidates was able to talk convincingly about deficit reduction and cutting certain federal outlays such as military spending and agricultural subsidies.
While Brown emphasized his meetin’, greetin’, and carin’, Warren maintained laser-like focus on the Senator’s record. Thus, giving voters the chance to judge what Brown has done — rather than what he says he will do. The approach worked. Brown spent valuable time defending and explaining his votes. It also drove home that Brown, the crusading outsider when he ran in 2010, is now the incumbent insider in 2012.
Finally, Brown’s calculated efforts throughout the campaign to paint his challenger as an out-of-touch elitist – too much head and not enough heart – have at times been bolstered by Warren’s own demeanor. Wednesday night on the Springfield stage, viewers saw the Democratic candidate in a high stakes encounter convey passion and determination. When talking about her consumer protection efforts, gender equality, investments in the future of children, and a broad range of other issues, Elizabeth Warren demonstrated just the right mix of head and heart.