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Opinion

Opinion | Jon Keller

The Brown-Warren debate up close

Buzzwords, white knuckles, and a lack of specific ideas from Brown and Warren

Senate candidates Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren smile before their first debate begins. Moderator Jon Keller is at center.

Barry Chin/Globe staff

Senate candidates Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren are seen before their first debate began. Moderator Jon Keller is at center.

Even before Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren threw their first sharp elbows in last week’s WBZ-TV debate, the state of their race was on display along aptly named Soldiers Field Road.

Warren arrived early and enjoyed a leisurely photo-op in a sea of sign-waving supporters, many of them turned out by labor unions. Brown’s truck pulled into the parking lot barely a half-hour before airtime to cheers from just a handful of fans, the end of a mad dash from Washington after what the Brown campaign claims were partisan delaying tactics.

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If Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid intended to muss up Brown before his big moment, a charge his office denies, his mission was accomplished. During a brief period of off-air small talk before the debate began, Warren was relaxed and smiling, while Brown’s stress was palpable. When she asked him how many TV debates he’d done over the years, he mistook the question for a renewal of their testy campaign back-and-forth over debates, and tersely told her: “I’m doing four.”

The contrast between a well-rested challenger riding a wave of partisan support and a harried incumbent lacking comparable political resources was evident throughout the debate. Both candidates knew they could be on camera in a split-screen at any time during long periods of free exchange; Brown had the more awkward reaction shots. As the aggressor, Brown had the tricky task of applying heat without seeming too hot, but it took its toll. “He’s usually deliberate and calm in his delivery, but he wasn’t so much that night,” says Don Khoury, a local non-verbal communication consultant.

Warren’s game plan — keep smiling, and calmly deflect all jabs — proved easier to execute. Voters tuning in for the hectoring, hand-waving Warren of early videos and talk-radio stereotypes instead saw benign smiles and an even vocal tone. Perhaps Warren’s white-knuckle grip on the podium during much of the debate played a role in keeping those hands low.

But while both candidates had their buzzwords, Warren at times seemed like a jukebox of poll-tested homilies. If your drinking keyword was “families” — in four varieties, “working,” “middle-class,” “American,” and “hardworking” — one hopes your car keys were taken away long before she reached the 25th reference. (Surprisingly, despite Brown’s eagerness to share his own family’s stories and household chores in the campaign, he never once used the word.)

What about content? At close range, two moments stood out.

Voters hoping to learn details were surely left wanting more.

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Dating back to his upset 2010 victory, Brown has gone all-in on the notion that enough independent-minded Massachusetts voters are fed up with strident partisanship and the political gridlock it spawns. In the debate, Warren countered that branding with a recent addition to her stump speech: Brown’s votes across party lines are “good,” but what’s needed is not less partisanship, but more. To voters who believe Democrats are in exclusive possession of all correct answers, Warren offers to be a senator you can count on “not some of the time, but all of the time.”

Throughout the debate, we asked the candidates for specific ideas — on energy conservation, higher-education reform, job creation in Massachusetts, and balancing the budget. Given ample time to do so, they instead chose vague nostrums and repetitive attack points.

Asked for thoughts on avoiding the “fiscal cliff” at the turn of the year that went beyond the short-term tax-hike debate, the two candidates agreed on the need for less “fraud and abuse” and reduced military spending. For a moment, Brown seemed to want to go further: “I’ve already voted to close the ethanol subsidy. There’s others like that. Let’s have that conversation.” But Warren preferred to explain how the incumbent loves big oil subsidies more than life itself, a turn toward pablum matched by Brown’s ridicule of her for failing to voluntarily pay extra income tax to the state.

The record-setting audience that watched this debate was treated to quite a show by two vivid personalities. But even with a format designed to give candidates maximum leeway to explain themselves as they see fit, uncommitted voters hoping to learn details of what they would do with their power were surely left wanting more.

For now, this race remains a battle of sign-wavers.

Jon Keller, who moderated last week’s Senate debate, is the political analyst for WBZ-TV and radio.
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