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Boston Globe: Warren stands firm in Senate debate

Warren stands firm in Senate debate

Senate hopefuls do no sparring

By Noah Bierman and Frank Phillips

Globe Staff 

LOWELL — Elizabeth Warren used her first debate last night to solidify her position as the front-runner in the race for the Democratic Senate nomination, with her opponents doing little to knock her off her stride or challenge her on any fundamental issue.

Warren’s performance showed a command of subjects and a comfortable stage presence, despite a lack of political experience, as she begins her quest to unseat Senator Scott Brown, a Republican.

She retold the story of her battle to build a consumer protection agency against entrenched interests in Washington.

 “Forbes Magazine named Scott Brown Wall Street’s favorite senator, and I was thinking that’s probably not an award I’m going to get,’’ she said.

Warren’s five competitors, perhaps burdened by a complicated format at the University of Massachusetts Lowell/Boston Herald-sponsored event that included questions from Twitter and student panelists, missed a chance to put her on the defensive. None of the candidates sparred directly with one another, and even mild critiques were oblique.

Still, they were able to present their own case and articulate their positions on the major issues confronting the country.

On war, taxes, regulation, and stimulus spending, the Democrats staked out positions to the left of President Obama: urging a quick military withdrawal, higher taxes on the rich, a broader crackdown on Wall Street, and more government spending to jump-start the economy.

In one of the most striking moments of the evening, Michael Hubbard, 25, a freshman who has served two tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, asked whether the candidates would encourage their children to join the military.

Alan Khazei called it a hard question and said it was difficult to think of his own young son and daughter “putting their lives on the line.’’

Warren was less equivocal, offering an answer that hewed closer to the stance Brown has taken.

“This is not a hard question for me,’’ she said. “All three of my brothers served in the military, and I, in fact, have urged my children or one of my children to consider it. He chose not to, but I believe that military service is a real alternative . . . and it’s an important opportunity to be part of America for others. So my answer is yes, absolutely.’’

Over the evening, Khazei, the candidate viewed as Warren’s closest competitor, took only a single veiled swipe at her, criticizing the “Washington establishment’’ and the political action committees that are backing Warren without mentioning her by name.

“If you think Washington PACs should call the shots, then the Washington establishment will get [its] way, then this election will be over before it starts,’’ Khazei said.

Warren, who declined Khazei’s challenge to reject PAC money last month, said after the debate that she has spent her career fighting big money interests and banks.

“No one has any question where I stand,’’ she said. “I fight for middle-class families and nothing, nothing will change that.’’

During the 90-minute face-off, Brown was seldom mentioned, but the candidates were eager to demonstrate that each was best-equipped to defeat him in 2012.

“Next to me, he will come across as nothing more than an empty suit with an empty list’’ of accomplishments, said Thomas P. Conroy, a state legislator from Wayland.

Though the election is still a year away, the debate brought a sense of excitement to the UMass Lowell campus and to the race, with red, white, and blue bunting adorning the hall, news trucks lined up, and Warren and Khazei supporters arriving hours ahead of time to wave signs.

In the absence of direct confrontation, the candidates used the evening as an opportunity to introduce themselves.

Warren demonstrated her ability to combine a professor’s command of the economy with the plain language of a populist fighter. Khazei, cofounder of a national service program, spoke about the importance of building coalitions to advocate for important causes and solve problems. Conroy offered anecdotes about the people he met while walking the state this summer, saying their stories illustrated the economic problems that Massachusetts faces.

Bob Massie, a former candidate for lieutenant governor, said he is in the race “to see capitalism move to a next step . . . to be sustainable and just.’’

Marisa DeFranco, a little-known immigration attorney, may have offered the night’s biggest surprise, punctuating her responses with fiery appeals to fight Washington. “I fight the federal government for a living,’’ she said. “I fight the true David versus Goliath.’’

The sixth candidate, engineer Herb Robinson, made the crowd laugh with one-liners about his girth and his marijuana use, but otherwise looked nervous and uncertain on many questions.

But it was Warren who had the most to lose. Just weeks after getting into the race, she has sucked up much of the oxygen in the race, with support from Democratic establishment groups pouring in, and a commanding lead among Democrats, according to a poll released this week.

Last night, Warren attempted to build on that momentum and to distinguish herself with a message against government regulation for small businesses, normally a Republican appeal. She said small business “job creators’’ were overburdened by paperwork and recounted her experience in the Obama administration, boiling down the mortgage disclosure form to a single page.

“We’ve got to make [regulations] clearer and stronger so that everyone has a chance to be able to prosper,’’ she said.

Moderated by UMass Lowell chancellor and former Democratic congressman Martin Meehan, the debate included more than a few frivolous questions, including a demand that the candidates compare themselves with a superhero.

“I’d have to be the Incredible Hulk, right?’’ said Robinson. Warren called herself Wonder Woman, who “had such a cool outfit and bracelets.’’ Khazei compared himself with Flash mocking his propensity to drive, move, and talk too fast.