US Senator Scott Brown is cheery and loose on a campaign walk through downtown Lynn. This is what he likes best. There is no press swarm, and no Democratic tracker recording his every move.
Brown pops into businesses. Poses for photos. Picks a dime off the sidewalk and pockets it. “I’m getting rich,” he says.
Then a boy, who looks about 8, stops him. He asks: Are you a bad guy, like I saw on TV?
“I’m not a bad person,” Brown assures him. The senator lingers, unhurried on a sparkling October afternoon. He records a keepsake video for another child, telling him to study hard in school. “I’m Scott Brown and I approve this message,” he says with a grin.
But the encounter sticks. Walking toward his next campaign stop, Brown says to nobody in particular, “I may be a lot of things but I’m not a bad guy.”
It was Brown’s ability to connect with voters, and his genuine enthusiasm for hand-pumping, back-slapping retail politics, that carried the Republican to a surprise victory in a 2010 special election to fill the term of the late US Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Brown has cast himself as the common-sense everyman, who rolls his eyes at the crazy partisanship in Washington, just like you do.
But 2012’s tight campaign against Democrat Elizabeth Warren has forced out another side of Scott Brown. Facing a determined opponent with an uncanny ability to raise cash, Brown has pressed a relentless assault on Warren’s character and integrity, a departure from the likeable-guy image central to his appeal.
In TV commercials, at debates, and on the campaign trail, Brown directly goes after Warren’s identity: “She’s not who she says she is.”
Warren, a Harvard Law professor and consumer advocate, hasn’t fired back in such a personal way. Instead, she whacks away at Brown’s voting record, while the incumbent preaches moderation in Washington, and bets on his greatest political asset: “A lot of people, I’m very similar to them,” says Brown. “I can always find some common ground.”
* * *
The most famous pickup truck in Massachusetts arrives in early October at the Mashpee Oktoberfest festival, with Scott Brown at the wheel and his wife, longtime TV news reporter Gail Huff, at his side. Brown, 53, put the GMC truck in his commercials in 2010, making it a touchstone of his regular-guy image.
Campaign staff and supporters are waiting, and the couple wade into the crowd.
Brown is both a national political figure and something of a pop culture celebrity; his election was fodder for Sunday morning talk shows as well as “Saturday Night Live.’’ He may be the most famous person many of his supporters will ever meet. And each wants a memento. At campaign appearances, Brown is a study in stamina. He keeps a Sharpie in his pocket for autographs. He has enormous patience, and an unflagging smile, for people who want photographs with him. The former model never seems to blink as the shutter falls.
For Brown, retail politics is “the best part of my whole job.”
“I’ll walk up to anybody,” he says. “You can usually tell by just a look whether they want to meet you or not. When they give you that look, like your wife gives you when she’s mad at you, that means you just say, ‘Hi, how you doing, glad to see you.’ But when they give you that look like your kids when you wake up — it’s like, ‘Hey come on over. I want to talk to you but I’m shy.’ “I’ve always loved this. For me it’s easy.”
He has no secret formula for retail politics. “I just try to be myself. I just try to be Scott.”
At the Mashpee festival, the polka music blares. Brown is mobbed and making small-talk. This is no public policy forum; he’s making gut-level connections with people thrilled to meet a VIP.
Brown is a tactile campaigner, touching people on the arms, patting their backs. He poses for a photo with a hot dog vendor, and then tells him, “Go make some money. I’ll try to protect it.” It is one of his favorite lines, recycled over and over to small business owners he meets on the trail.
First-time voter Matt Corwin, 19, visiting the fair from Hingham, has already made up his mind in the race, voting absentee for Brown because he will be out-of-state, at the University of Alabama, on Election Day.
Why Brown? Corwin cities no specific Senate vote or policy, just simply: “I can relate to him.”
It takes him a few tries to organize his thoughts, but he gets there: “He can afford anything he wants but his truck has a dent in it,” says Corwin. “I can relate to that. Washington hasn’t changed him.”
* * *
Both political parties employ so-called trackers to stalk the Senate candidates with video cameras, hoping to catch misstatements or awkward moments that can be weaponized into attack ads. Brown tends to stiffen up around the Democratic tracker, and his campaign goes to great lengths to frustrate the enemy, often holding events on the property of Brown supporters, who are free to ban trackers from their land. In the final weeks of the campaign, event staff have begun asking reporters to show media identification at Brown appearances, to keep out trackers or moles who could infiltrate the press corps and ask partisan questions at press conferences.
But there is no tracker around for Brown’s campaign stroll through Lynn with the mayor. Brown, dressed in a pinstripe business suit and New England Patriots necktie, ducks into the Super 99 Cent store. It is a slow shopping day and the store is quiet. He greets two employees, who smile but seem oblivious to the identity of this gregarious man handing out his business cards.
On the way out Brown pauses at a rack of $1 neckties. “Hold on here,” he says. “Whoa! Dollar ties? I need some ties.” He thumbs through the rack. He leaves the store twirling a bag of neckwear around one finger. At his next stop, a fabric store, he brags, “I just got four ties for a dollar each!”
By the time he reaches Brothers Deli, Brown is ready for a scheduled interview. But first the road-racer and triathlete wants to commiserate about the reporter’s sore Achilles tendon. He leans down for a hands-on diagnosis. “Where is it? Right here? Can I touch it?”
He gently pinches the tendon right where it hurts. Here is a politician who feels your pain. “It’s not swollen,” he says, brightly.
Brown pulls down his own sock to show a scar up the back of his heel, where a surgeon fixed his foot. It is his instinct to find something in common with everyone.
Then a quick anatomy lesson: “The Achilles — there’s a tendon and there’s a sheath around it,” says Brown, wrapping his fist around a finger. “There’s fluid in there and as we get older the fluid dries up and the sheath and the tendon adhere.”
He pulls off his dress shoe in the restaurant to demonstrate some easy stretches and exercises in his stocking foot. He prescribes new running shoes. Ice and massage. Aleve, the runners’ magic pill. And stay off the pavement.
This is the persona Brown wants voters to remember: the normal guy who’s just like you. Same goals, same problems. Not always hustling for a vote. Just happy to shoot the breeze.
The restaurant’s owner, George Markos, sums up Brown’s common touch as well as any Brown supporter on the trail: “He doesn’t act like somebody else,” says Markos, a native of Greece who has run his business for 23 years. “He blends with the people.”
Two days later, Brown debuts perhaps his darkest attack ad of the campaign. It opens with stark images of a shuttered factory and broken glass. The music is ominous and the unflattering photos of Warren make her look calculating. The ad hits Warren’s corporate legal work, seeking to undermine her campaign theme as an advocate for the little guy.
Brown must put his name on any TV attacks against Warren, due to an agreement between the campaigns that has effectively kept outside political groups off the air in Massachusetts.
Outside groups typically do much of the dirty work, by taking responsibility for negative ads and allowing candidates to take the high road. But Brown says he has no regrets over signing the deal, which he calls “incredible” and “historic.”
“It’s cowardly to hide behind these Super PAC groups and not be able to stand behind your own criticism of your opponent,” he says.
The Brown ad against Warren echoes the candidate on the stump: “Elizabeth Warren’s just not who she says she is.”
It is a brutal, dual-purpose attack line, which cleverly reminds voters of Warren’s unproven claims of Native American heritage. The subtext is about authenticity: Which candidate is more like you?
* * *
Low clouds to the east are still pink when Brown arrives, alone in his truck, in Middleborough, to stand with two dozen supporters at the American Legion rotary. They hold signs and wave at commuters on a damp Friday morning. Heavy traffic recklessly zooms. Brown stands on a shoulder littered with bits of taillights from innumerable fender-benders.
A driver cuts off traffic with a clumsy merge, but doesn’t seem to notice. He’s beaming and waving at Scott Brown. There is a dog on his lap.
“Thank you!” the senator calls out. “Don’t get killed, please.”
Hundreds of commuters toot and wave at Brown in one hour at the rotary. Just one gives him the finger. “It’s a badge of honor,” Brown tells his supporters, though he admits the one-finger salutes can be hard to forget.
“Ninety-five percent of the people are just wonderful,” says Brown, including most of those who intend to vote against him. “It’s that bloc of 3 or 4 or 5 percent of the people,” he said, his voice trailing off.
As an example, he describes the enthusiastic reception he and his wife received at the East Boston Columbus Day parade, in which both Senate candidates marched. “It was truly overwhelming. Gail and I were like, ‘Wow.’
“We have that amazing response and you’ll hear one person say something: ‘Oh, you’re an a-hole!’ And that’s the one thing I remember. I don’t remember necessarily the other 15,000 good responses. I’ll remember that one person.
“And I say why would somebody do that, be that mean-spirited? Why? Like when you’re doing a sign standout and somebody goes by and gives you the finger. Why even spend the energy? Just keep driving.”