With the field more or less set, Democrats vying for their party's nomination to challenge Scott Brown debated for the first time at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell this evening. The debate was moderated by UMASS-Lowell Chancellor and former representative Martin Meehan with questions from a student panel. Having six participants, the word debate seems a little silly. It was almost like a candidates forum, but with poorly enforced time limits. In any event it was an opportunity for the candidates to introduce themselves to a wider audience. We will do no less, but start with a couple of points.
With Elizabeth Warren very far ahead of the others in the polls, the former White House adviser had the traditional benefits and risks of frontrunner status. Her goal was not to screw up. She did that very well. The phrases we have heard for three weeks now were, to those who have been following, a bit old. However, her best moments were clearly the least scripted ones as on military service and immigration (her son-in-law is an immigrant). If by the next debate she can talk about the middle class without repeating any of the phrases in her announcement video, she'll be just fine.
The other detail has to do with the implicit attack on Warren for receiving money from political action committees, namely the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and EMILY's List. While both groups are left-leaning national groups based in Washington, neither are beholden to corporations or moneyed interests like Karl Rove's PAC's. The PCCC may seem to be an example of the uncompromising left, but by all accounts they, like MoveOn.org (who also support Warren) began from the grassroots left. EMILY's List is an organization dedicated to electing Pro-choice Democratic women and had similar humble roots in the mid-1980's. It has been behind the election of most Democratic women senators in the past 25 years, beginning with Maryland's senior Senator Barabara Mikulski.
Finally this "debate," as said, was really more a showcase than anything else. Although Bob Massie and Alan Khazei jabbed Warren's PAC money, the rest of the debate was civil and the candidates were largely in a agreement on the issues. As the Twitterverse commented, the debate possessed something much of the GOP Presidential debates lacked: sanity.
Now, the Candidates!
Tom Conroy: The state rep turned Senate candidate appears to have stuck to basic liberal Democratic ideas. His sell was that he beat a popular Republican in his State Rep district. It is important to note, however that a State Rep seat has about 40,000 people in it. Population of Massachusetts? 6.3 million+.
Marisa DeFranco: The Twitterverse said she was gunning for the Mike Capuano vote. She talked about not "capitulating." While the Democrats have done their fair share of that, some things, like the Health Care Law, which some saw as a "capitulation" has been staunchly defended by Capuano. DeFranco's argument about being from Essex County, a place Scott Brown largely won, also seemed weak.
Alan Khazei: Khazei emphasized his work with creating non-profits almost ad nauseum, but it was clear that he had what it takes to take on Warren past the convention and onto the primary. Little, if anything distinguished him from Warren, but he did sound like he was trying to sound like he was just like her...only better. His distinguishing remark, he enjoyed smoke pot at least once in his life.
Bob Massie: There is no doubt that the man has lived an impressive life, but it felt like much of his argument was "You don't know what you're missing." The hits on Warren for PAC money was mostly from him and his evocation of Ted Kennedy, seemed misplaced. To take back the people's seat, which Brown has used like a commode, we cannot wax nostalgic about Teddy.
Herb Robinson: The engineer who essentially called himself the Democratic counterpart to Scott Brown's everymanhood had some laughs, but seemed largely devoid of anything special. He seemed nervous and struggled through many answers.
Elizabeth Warren: See above for more, but did a very good job. Expectations were sky high and, well, frankly her supporters would not be disappointed and her detractors would not be either. If today was the introduction, now she needs to start sharpening her message. That is extremely tough this early in the calendar and incredibly risky, but to keep the momentum, she's got to keep them interested and keep them coming back for more.