SPRINGFIELD — Senator Scott Brown and his Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren, had some of their most spirited debate exchanges yet on Wednesday night, but beyond the sound and fury, two simple, substantive lines of attack emerged.
Brown, the Republican incumbent, cast himself as the guardian of lunch-bucket and other middle-class voters, as he accused Warren of viewing tax increases as a panacea for all the country’s ills.
“The one thing we can’t be doing right now, in the middle of this 3½-year recession, is by taking more money out of people’s hard-working pocketbooks and wallets and giving it to the federal government,” the senator said. “They’re like pigs in a trough up there. They just take and take and take and take.”
For Warren, a Harvard Law School professor, her goal was to highlight votes she said broke faith not just with middle-class voters, but women in particular.
In perhaps her most polished answer of any of the tandem’s three debates so far, Warren aimed to accomplish both tasks at once.
“He has gone to Washington and he has had some good votes,” the Democrat opened, “but he has had exactly one chance to vote for equal pay for equal work. And he voted no. He had exactly one chance to vote for insurance coverage for birth control and other preventive services for women. He voted no. And he had exactly one chance to vote for a prochoice woman, from Massachusetts, to the United States Supreme Court. And he voted no. Those are bad votes for women. The women of Massachusetts need a senator they can count on, not some of the time, but all of the time.”
The debate comes at a pivotal moment in the race.
The first showdown between the candidates, on Sept. 20, was largely a draw.
Each made cases sure to appeal to their respective bases. Their second meeting, on Oct. 1, tilted toward Brown’s favor, with him aggressively attacking Warren. Since then, polls have shown a tightening in the race.
Brown was 4 points ahead of Warren in a WBUR-MassINC survey with a 4.4 percentage point margin of error, a statistical dead heat. Warren, meanwhile, held a 5-point edge over Brown in another poll by the Western New England University Polling Institute and the Springfield Republican newspaper.
In their only meeting in a part of the state that often feels ignored by statewide candidates, Brown took a local tack in reaching out to voters. He made his first comment of the night a thank-you to former Springfield mayor Charles Ryan, who has endorsed him.
The senator brought that up again in his closing statement.
In between, he talked about eating lunch at Milano’s restaurant and complained that Warren’s call for defense cuts would harm two local institutions: Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee and Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield.
“You know, the ‘millionaires’ and ‘billionaires’ and all the ‘Buffett Rule’ are great sound bites, but when you’re talking about our military personnel, you have to get serious, and I’ve been doing that for 2½ years, working to protect the Westover, Hanscom, and all of our military bases,” the senator said. “As ranking member of Armed Services, I’ve visited there, I’ve spoken with the leadership. I know what the missions are, and it would be devastating to lose those services in Massachusetts.”
Brown is the ranking member, or top Republican, on a Senate Armed Services subcommittee.
While Brown localized his argument, Warren sought to nationalize the race, underscoring that the partisan balance in the Senate could hinge on the outcome of their race.
She repeatedly tried to link Brown to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, with whom the senator shares political advisers but rarely mentions on the stump.
“You know, he raises the same old argument that there will be more than $700 billion taken out of Medicare. That’s the same playbook that Mitt Romney used a week ago tonight,” Warren said at one point. “It was wrong then, it’s wrong tonight.”
At another, Warren said: “I just want to say, I’m really glad to support President Obama as commander in chief and I don’t want to see Mitt Romney in that job.”
When it came time to defend herself against Brown’s principal attack, Warren tried to undercut any portrayal of her as a tax-and-spend liberal.
“What I believe is that everybody pays a fair share. And that means the millionaires, that means the billionaires, that means the big oil companies. And then we make those investments in the future,” she said. “Senator Brown doesn’t want to talk about his voting record, he just wants to launch attacks.”
Brown’s rebuttal to Warren’s attacks on his voting record was two-fold: He accused her of misrepresenting the true nature of the votes she cited, and he highlighted media rankings labeling him one of the least partisan members of the Senate.
“We can’t be pinning people against each other, it needs to be done in a truly bipartisan manner,” he said in talking about overhauling the federal tax code. “And as somebody who’s the second most bipartisan senator in the US Senate, I’ve done and I continue to do, and I’m proud to be that way.”
The candidates have one final debate on Oct. 30 in Boston.Glen Johnson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.