Senator Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren sparred Wednesday over health care, taxes, and women’s rights in a debate that drilled into policy and left behind some, but not all, of the personal sniping that has characterized their race for the US Senate.
Warren, a Democrat, was often on the attack, criticizing votes Brown has taken that she said have gone against the interests of women, workers, and students. Brown, emphasizing his local support and local roots, sought to burnish his home-grown, independent image.
Some of the biggest issues Brown, a Republican, used to attack Warren in the first two debates were mentioned only briefly or not at all. Warren’s legal work on behalf of corporations, for example, was hardly discussed, though it is the main focus of several of Brown’s television ads.
Controversy over Warren’s heritage, which has hung over the race for months, never came up, as moderator Jim Madigan of WGBY-TV, the public television station in Springfield, kept the focus on policy.
The debate at Springfield Symphony Hall featured no singularly explosive moment that could upend the contest, though there were lively exchanges that laid bare stark policy differences and allowed the candidates to begin making their closing arguments to voters.
One of the most heated skirmishes focused on equal pay for women, abortion, and insurance coverage for contraception.
Brown downplayed differences between his views and Warren’s, saying they both support legalized abortion. He also pointed out that he is a husband, a father of two girls, and grew up defending his mother from an abusive stepfather.
“I have been fighting since I was 6 years old to protect women’s rights,” Brown said, adding that he cosponsored the Violence Against Women Act and fought to restore funding for Planned Parenthood in the Senate.
Warren, however, pounced on Brown’s opposition to a bill that would have made it easier for women to sue for damages in cases of pay discrimination, and his cosponsorship of the Blunt Amendment, which would allow employers to deny coverage for services such as abortion and contraception which they oppose on moral or religious grounds.
“I want to be blunt,” said Warren. “We should not be fighting about equal pay for equal work and access to birth control in 2012.”
When the candidates turned to jobs, Brown argued that Warren would saddle businesses with higher taxes and new regulations when many are still struggling.
“The one thing we can’t be doing right now” is raising taxes, Brown said. “They’re like pigs in a trough up there,” he added, referring to Congress. “They just take and take and take and take.”
Seizing the offensive, Brown used one one of Warren’s favorite lines, about the middle-class getting hammered, to criticize her on her signature issue: strict
regulation of the financial sector.
“When you’re talking about getting hammered, Professor Warren, I suggest you put down the hammer because it’s your regulations and your policies that are going to be hurting middle-class families,” Brown said.
Warren said Brown’s votes against three of President Obama’s jobs bills have hurt the middle class.
Those bills would have raised taxes on upper-income earners to help pay for teachers, firefighters, and police officers and to rebuild crumbling roads and bridges.
“I believe that everybody pays a fair share, even millionaires, even billionaires, even big oil companies, and when everybody pays a fair share, we can all make the investments in the future,” she said.
Brown and Warren expressed some of their sharpest disagreements over Obama’s health care law, which Brown wants to repeal and which Warren supports.
“This is a jobs-crushing bill that is going to crush Massachusetts businesses,” Brown said.
Warren said the law would reduce the cost of health care and spur innovation.
“There’s a lot that the Affordable Care Act does and a big part of that is to help bring down health care costs,” she said.
“There’s going to be changes in billing practices, but also investment and a lot of research and how to get better outcomes at lower costs.”
When the topic turned to taxes, Warren attacked Brown for signing the antitax pledge promoted by Grover Norquist, of Americans for Tax Reform.
Brown said he makes no apologies for opposing tax increases.
“Listen, I am glad Grover Norquist agrees with me: We shouldn’t be raising taxes on anybody in the middle of a 3½-year recession,” he said.
“Let’s make it clear: I am not going to be raising taxes on anyone in Massachusetts or anyone in the United States. We are in a fiscal and financial emergency right now, we do not need to do every single time, say take, take, take more and more money out of people’s pocketbooks and wallets.”
Warren used the issue to cast Brown as beholden to out-of-state conservatives.
“I think I just heard Senator Brown say that instead of working for the people of Massachusetts he’s taken a pledge to work for Grover Norquist, to make sure that no tax deal occurs that costs millionaires or billionaires even one dollar more,” Warren said.
Brown threw one of the few personal barbs of the night when he criticized Warren’s salary at Harvard Law School, saying lucrative pay is partly responsible for the rising cost of higher education.
Warren responded by pointing out that she got her education at “a commuter school,” the University of Houston, and is proud to have made it to Harvard.
The debate was sponsored by a Western Massachusetts media consortium.
The rivals, engaged in one of the most closely watched, expensive Senate contests in the country, will face off only once more, a week before the election.
The fourth and final debate on Oct. 30 will be held in Boston and be sponsored by a media consortium that includes The Boston Globe.
globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.