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Brown turns down debate after condition rejected

Senator Scott Brown today rejected a debate proposed by Victoria Reggie Kennedy, after the widow of Senator Edward M. Kennedy refused his precondition that she not endorse a candidate in his reelection campaign against Democrat Elizabeth Warren.

“We respect Vicki Kennedy’s decision but we regret that we cannot accept a debate invitation from someone who plans to endorse Scott Brown’s opponent,” Brown Campaign Manager Jim Barnett said in a statement. “The Kennedy Institute cannot hold itself out as a nonpartisan debate sponsor while the president of its board of trustees gets involved in the race on behalf of one of the candidates.”

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The announcement came shortly after representatives of Vicki Kennedy said she would not agree to Brown’s demand that she remain neutral in the race, in exchange for the senator’s participation in a late September debate she had proposed be hosted by the University of Massachusetts Boston and Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.

Barnett had said Monday that Brown would participate only if Kennedy, president of the board at the Kennedy Institute, not endorse in the race and that MSNBC not be the broadcast sponsor of the debate.

In a letter today to Brown and Warren, Lisa McBirney, chief operating officer of the Kennedy Institute, and Christopher Hogan, chief of staff in the chancellor’s office at UMass Boston, the other debate co-sponsor, made clear that Vicki Kennedy would not relinquish her right to endorse in the race.

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“Given the goodwill and understanding of the nonpartisan mission of the institute that Senator Brown has thus far shown, it seems inconsistent that he would now attempt to restrict the activities of Mrs. Kennedy as a condition of accepting a debate that is co-sponsored by an organization with which she is affiliated,” McBirney and Hogan wrote.

“This non-endorsement pledge is unprecedented and is not being required of any other persons or entities,” they wrote. “To us, such a pledge seems inappropriate when a non-media sponsor issues a debate invitation. We can assure both campaigns that the debate will be fair, just as the one we cosponsored between Senator Brown and Attorney General Martha Coakley in 2010 was fair.”

Barnett responded with his two-sentence statement saying the senator would not participate in the debate.

The candidates are still slated to debate at some point on WBZ-TV, as well as before a media consortium in western Massachusetts. Warren has also accepted a debate proposed by a Boston media consortium, while Brown has accepted two Boston-area radio debate invitations.

The Brown campaign has refused to meet with the Warren staff to discuss the invitations they have solely accepted, as well as remaining invitations and the terms and dates for their possible meetings.

The Brown campaign argues that Edward M. Kennedy himself used to dictate the terms under which he would debate, and that there were no debate negotiations when Brown faced off with Coakley in 2010.

Brown has had a tumultuous relationship with the Kennedy family.

The Republican famously rebranded Edward Kennedy’s seat the “People’s Seat” - during a 2010 debate at UMass Boston - and dashed the family’s hopes that it would remain in Democratic hands after the liberal stalwart died of brain cancer in 2009.

During his 2010 campaign, Brown upset the Kennedy family by airing an ad that featured footage of President John F. Kennedy talking about the importance of tax cuts. The image of the president, the slain elder brother of Edward Kennedy, then morphed into an image of Brown, making the same argument.

More recently, Brown argued that Senator Kennedy would have joined him in supporting a measure that would allow employers to deny insurance coverage for contraception and other services to which they have moral objections. The senator’s son, former US Representative Patrick Kennedy, angrily disagreed.

Brown has also courted the family, at times.

After his election in 2010, Brown made one of his first phone calls to Vicki Kennedy. He also said publicly that he keeps a picture of Senator Kennedy on the mantle in his Washington office.

In April 2011, Brown surprised some partisans by attending the ground-breaking ceremony for the Kennedy Institute in Boston.

“I told you’d I’d come,” he said, sparking laughter from the heavily Democratic crowd. “A little surprised, everybody, isn’t it?”

He went on to pay homage to Vicki Kennedy and the institute.

“I’ve had the privilege, actually, to speak with Vicki on many occasions about for her vision for this amazing facility, for this institute of learning, and I was deeply moved by her passion and enthusiasm to do something very special for her husband and for the family and for our Commonwealth and for our country,” Brown said at the ground-breaking.

Vicki Kennedy proposed the Brown-Warren debate in a letter to both candidates earlier this month, part of her attempts to link her husband’s legacy and the Senate seat to the institute being built on Columbia Point.

It is envisioned as a venue that will allow the public, academics, and senators themselves to study the history and workings of the upper chamber of Congress.

The institute is now under construction on a parcel between UMass Boston and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum.

McBirney and Hogan, the institute and UMass Boston representatives, said in their letter to Brown that they would be open to networks other than MSNBC hosting the debate, which was to be moderated by former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw.

Barnett had argued the network, known for its liberal tilt, was too partisan for the debate.

McBirney and Hogan said the institute had not decided on a media sponsor, so “we still have some flexibility in this area.”

They also wrote that they still hoped to work out the terms for a debate with Brown and Warren.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. You can follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.
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