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Opinion | Brian McGrory

Clash of the titans

Senate candidates Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren participated in their first debate on Thursday night.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Senate candidates Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren participated in their first debate on Thursday night.

I’m not exactly sure what I expected from the first Senate debate, but I know I didn’t expect what we got.

It was terrific. No, that doesn’t go far enough. It was shockingly fantastic. Everyone who missed it Thursday night, which I suspect is just about every normal person in this state, should be furiously figuring out where ­C-Span is on their cable dial to catch it as a rerun.

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The campaign to this point, despite all the national hyperbole, has been an exquisitely miserable one. Maybe it’s inevitable, given all the hype, that when you put any two people on a stage so vast, they are going to come across as smaller than life.

But not last night. Definitely not last night. These two people could not possibly be any more different. They despise each other, and both of them, especially Republican Scott Brown, had no problem letting it be known.

How do we know this? Well, it was all of about two minutes into what may go down as the fastest hour on television when Brown called his Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren, dishonest, untruthful, and lacking character — this of course over the legitimate Native American issue. And that was just the start.

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He acidly questioned whether Warren was worth her sizable six-figure Harvard Law School salary for, as he noted, teaching one course. When he was questioned over his 2010 vote against Elena Kagan, a former Harvard Law School dean, for the Supreme Court, he curtly said: “I’m sorry I didn’t vote for your boss. I know you are close.” He repeatedly said, as he was pressed on other votes on equal pay and contraception, “You should stop scaring women, professor.”

Throughout the night, they snidely laughed at each other. Their voices, Brown’s especially, dripped with disdain. Neither of them, in the eyes of the other, has basically ever done a single thing right.

All in all, this could have been an episode of “Divorce Court” as easily as a ­Senate debate, with very able moderator Jon Keller, the WBZ-TV political analyst, serving as the judge. You half expected Brown to unload with a, “You miserable (derogatory term here),” while Warren shook her head and muttered, “I hate the way you breathe.”

It didn’t come to that. It didn’t have to. Warren pressed three main points: that Brown was so supportive of the uber-rich that he would allow taxes to be raised on the middle class unless the top 2 percent of earners had their tax breaks continued; that Brown is untrustworthy on women’s issues; and that a vote for Brown could be a vote for Republican control of the Senate. Notably and admirably, she seemed to quell her penchant for sloganeering.

Brown pressed points of his own, first that Warren is too eager to raise taxes on those who create jobs (“I’m going to fight for every taxpayer”); that she’s too divisively liberal; and that, well, she’s an untruthful jerk. Notably and admirably, he refrained from the term “elitist,” and held back, relatively, on the title “professor.”

The key questions going in were whether Brown would have a grasp on the issues and nuance and whether Warren would have a grasp on herself.

The truth is, Brown burned surprisingly hot, and it sometimes got in the way. About 15 minutes in, he looked like he was hit by a truck, sputtering about numbers from a tax study in haphazard fashion. He did, however, regroup enough to make some effective, if sharp, points.

Warren was surprisingly cool and completely relentless, beginning her answers with a quiet, “So,” and methodically referring to Brown’s votes. After Brown unloaded on her character over the Native American issue before she ever got a chance to speak, she began, “I was going to start by saying Scott Brown is a nice guy.”

She didn’t seem to mean it. He didn’t seem pleased about it.

That’s OK. For the first time this year, we got the race we are supposed to have.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.
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