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Adrian Walker

Debates loom large in Brown-Warren race

Most elections have their turning points, and one may be looming in the contest between Republican Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren.

After months of circling each other, they engage in the first of four televised debates Thursday night.

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As the debate draws near, Warren has gone on the offensive against Brown, almost literally. Her latest ad is shot in a Lowell boxing gym, where Micky Ward’s former trainer endorses her as the kind of person who cares about working people. At the same time that she goes on the attack, Warren is reportedly seeking to soften her image — a combination of goals that may be hard to pull off.

Brown, meanwhile, continues his low-substance campaign with a series of ads that make him look affable, connected — and almost like a third-party candidate, piling up kudos from Democrats while desperately avoiding the word “Republican.”

Often, debates are the province of partisans and political junkies. But a close race between two such fundamentally different candidates promises to be an exception. This is a campaign where the debates figure to matter.

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Brown will be seeking, once and for all, to shed his image as an accidental senator, a man who didn’t win election so much as his opponent blew it. His record in Washington is a mixed bag — at best — but he can sell his personality with the best of them. He is proof that being a gifted candidate, which he is, isn’t necessarily the same as being great in office.

Warren, meanwhile, hopes to move past introducing herself to voters and finally get to confront Brown head-on. She is a born debater, but political debates are very different from the skirmishes some may recall from high school days. To see the candidates side-by-side will be fascinating.

By some accounts, Warren may be enjoying something of a surge. One poll released this weekend showed her holding a six-point lead. Other surveys, public and private, indicated a smaller margin.

Warren told me last week she looks forward to debating Brown. “I think when people really listen to the issues and focus on the votes he has taken, I can win, and win easily.”

One alleged issue that really isn’t an issue at all — at least as far as I’m concerned — is “likability.” Some Democratic strategists, in particular, seem taken with the notion that Warren comes off in ads as some kind of know-it-all scold. But there isn’t much hard evidence that voters see it that way. In my informal conversations with voters who aren’t in the business of politics, they seem to like both candidates. They just haven’t decided which one they would rather send to Washington.

Each candidate has advantages and disadvantages. Brown combines great skill on the campaign trail with a record that many voters seem to consider moderate and reasonable. Even Warren insiders now concede that demonizing Brown isn’t likely to work: Too many voters see him as a good guy.

For her part, Warren is obviously thoughtful and accomplished, but has yet to convince voters that her success in other arenas will translate into being a great senator. Her campaign also suffers from simply being too generic — subtract the references to Ted Kennedy and you could run her campaign in Minnesota, or Oregon. All anyone knows for sure is that, with 51 days to go, this race is a true tossup. The sparring sessions are over, and the real battle is finally about to begin.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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