Five Takeaways from the Third Brown-Warren Debate

Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren debated for the third time Wednesday night, and we (soberly, don’t worry) watched along. Here are five thoughts in the immediate aftermath:

This debate was substantive: Much credit should go to debate moderator Jim Madigan of WGBY-TV who kept the candidates on policy matters for almost the entire hour. (He gets fewer points for crowd control. They cheered and one Brown supporter very obnoxiously booed through the whole thing.) The substance stands in contrast to the previous two debates (though mostly the most recent one) where we spent nearly as long discussing “character” and personal issues from Warren’s heritage to Brown’s “kings and queens” comment. The candidates didn’t spend much time on personal stuff, and spent a record zero time on Warren’s heritage. (Even Brown Superfan Howie Carr was getting tired of that issue.) Instead, they covered a huge span of policy issues including health care, taxes, military funding, education, Iran, Syria, and gender equality. We expressed some skepticism that this debate would uncover much, but we’d say that if you want to watch any of the three, this would be the one that best lays out their differences in governance.

Warren finally got the debate she wanted with Mitt Romney: President Obama’s declining fortunes as a result of last week’s debate are definitely not a great development for Warren, as my colleague Jason Schwartz ably explains here. But in one sense, Obama’s performance gave Warren an advantage: a thirst for revenge. Scott Brown often alleges that he knows Warren would like the chance to run against Mitt Romney, but unfortunately she’s running against Brown. Not tonight. Like most of President Obama’s supporters, it seems like Warren studied last week’s debate and memorized the answers she thought the President should have given. Brown gave her two opportunities to use them. When Brown alleged that the health care reform would cut $750 billion from Medicare, Warren was ready with a lengthy rebuttal to the claim, one many a pundit wished Obama had made himself last week. When Brown cited a study from the National Federation of Independent Business, a figure Romney used last week a few times, Warren was ready with a response that the group wasn’t independent at all, but had in fact endorsed Republicans and called Ted Kennedy “Public Enemy Number 1.” She had these answers well prepared and in both cases got off the same quotable line, referring to last week’s debate: “It was wrong then. It’s wrong tonight.”

Some viewers were treated to an impromptu commercial break: Your humble writer, as well as many in-state viewers watching NECN were denied a piece of the exchange on women’s rights when the network cut to commercial in the middle of Scott Brown’s answer. The commercial break lasted only a minute or so before cutting back in, but of course, it left reporters on Twitter either sputtering or acting smug at their choice to watch the debate on CSPAN. (Aren’t CSPAN viewers always the smuggest of all?)

Brown’s best moment: This debate took place in Western Massachusetts, a region the Globe notes hasn’t gotten much attention in the race. Brown managed to bring up local issues, local politicians, and local businesses at every opportunity. As the Washington Post notes, “Brown’s likability stems in large part from his image as a normal guy from Massachusetts. He made a concerted effort to underscore that pitch Wednesday night.”

Warren’s best moment: Without question it was her riff on women. Several reporters in our stream concurred that her answer, clearly rehearsed, seemed like an effective hit on Brown. “He’s 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 services for women and he voted no. And he had exactly one chance to vote for a pro-choice woman for the United States Supreme Court and he voted no. Those are bad votes for women.” This was obviously a rehearsed point, but she delivered it well, and finished with 20 seconds to spare. It’s another good example of the advantage she has over Brown which is an opponent with a public voting record.

We’ll have more on the debate as reactions come in, and in the meantime, you can watch it (or re-watch it, if you’re feeling weird) on CSPAN.