The Professor and the Jock: Elizabeth Warren Debates Scott Brown

Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, speaks during a campaign rally, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, at Bos
Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, speaks during a campaign rally, Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, at Boston University in Boston. (AP Photo/Bizuayehu Tesfaye)

The opening debate between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown, candidates for the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts, at times felt like the classroom dynamic between an earnest, soft-spoken high school English teacher and the defiant jock who plants himself in the back row and makes sour faces until the bell rings. Although the teacher never quite subdued her student, neither did he manage to get the better of her.

Campaign debates are most interesting when they feature disparate leading characters. On this front Brown and Warren delivered in spades. You'd be hard-pressed to imagine what these two individuals would ever have to say to each other if they did not happen to be sharing a debate stage. One is from Venus, the other from Mars.

This fundamental difference manifested itself in the way each debater approached the other. Warren employed a two-pronged strategy: attacking her opponent's voting record and linking him to the Republican Senate. She centered her critique on Brown's political history, not his personality.

Brown, by contrast, was much more willing to get down and dirty. In his very first response of the night, the incumbent senator charged that Warren had inaccurately claimed Native American ancestry as a means of furthering her career. With this, Brown set a tone of personal aggressiveness that played out for much of the hour. During a discussion of the high cost of higher education, the senator even tut-tutted about Warren's salary and benefits package.

If Brown was hoping to rattle Warren with these barbs, no such rattling took place. From start to finish, Brown seemed a great deal more perturbed by Warren than Warren seemed perturbed by Brown. The challenger maintained her unflappability and for the most part refused the bait. In the final analysis, she came off as better prepared than her opponent, keeping him on the defensive by narrowly focusing her argument on the specifics of Brown's voting record. Brown did not appear to have an overarching strategy for the debate; Warren did.

Which is not to suggest that Warren delivered a knockout performance. She failed to connect Brown to Mitt Romney, an unpopular figure in his home state, and she waited until too late in the debate to tie Brown to his Republican colleagues. For reasons unknown, Warren chose not to take advantage of the format to directly confront her opponent. And she did not always budget her time effectively, repeating herself word for word on more than one occasion. But this was also a problem for Scott Brown, who too often felt like he was running out the clock with rote platitudes rather than treating the voters to a thoughtful discussion.

From a stylistic standpoint, Warren has a lot of work to do. She needs to master the mechanics of TV debates: how to modulate her voice, when to smile, when to play to the camera, what expression to wear while the opponent is speaking. On these matters, Brown displays far greater fluency.

But in this first of three Massachusetts senatorial debate before Election Day, Elizabeth Warren presented herself as a plausible alternative to her rival. Before they meet again on October 1st, Scott Brown would be well-advised to hit the books and study for the big exam. It's clear that the teacher at the front of the room has no intention of letting him coast.