Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown and his Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren are still deadlocked in recent polls, but their campaigns may both be facing a critical turning point.
Andrew Smith, the pollster who conducted a recent Boston Globe poll showing Brown with 39 percent support to Warren's 37 percent, says the Native American issue--Warren supposedly reaping professional benefits from her claims of mixed blood--is likely more significant than his poll seems to indicate.
According to the survey, nearly 3 in 4 voters said the controversy would not impact their vote. But of the Democrats who say they are voting for Brown now, 43 percent said the Native American issue makes them less likely to vote for Warren and 48 percent of the independents say the same, he says.
"If you throw out the Republicans who were going to vote for Brown anyway and the hardcore Democrats who were going to vote for Warren anyway, you start to look at the 5 percent that's going to make a difference in this race--it's really close," Smith says. "It's having an impact there."
Warren has been plagued by accusations that she claimed Native American heritage in order to further her career in academia and has stumbled badly in handling the political fallout. Most recently, Warren finally tried to clear up residual confusion about her family's heritage and the role it played--if any--in her career, such as receiving tenure as a law professor at Harvard College. But in doing so, she essentially changed the narrative her campaign had tried to build after originally being confronted with questions.
"They had to retract essentially their positions over the last several weeks--that tells me that they know this is a more significant problem than the polling data indicates," adds Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
Brown, meanwhile, has been relying on his personal popularity and Warren's follies to maintain his electoral edge.
"If the Brown campaign can continue to focus on character stuff, that plays right into his strengths. For Warren, her strengths are issue positions in Massachusetts," Smith says.
During the recent state Democratic Convention in which she secured her nomination in impressive fashion, Warren tried to turn the page from her own story to Brown's legislative record.
"It's a long way from Ted Kennedy to Scott Brown," she said. "Look, I don't care about what kind of truck Scott Brown drives. I don't care how he describes himself in TV ads. I care about how he votes."
Attacking Brown on the votes he's cast since winning his seat in a 2010 special election may be Warren's only chance for victory in what's expected to be one of the closest Senate match-ups in the country, as he's widely seen as more popular in a state dominated by Democrats.
The two camps are now trying to agree on a debate schedule, which would give Warren the chance to take Brown on directly--but she'll likely have to address the Native American issue as well.
The final game-changer in the race may come down to money.
"This race carries a lot of importance both symbolically but also practically," he says. "This is possibly for control of the Senate. There's going to be so much money that's thrown into this and so much attention paid to it that I don't think anybody really expects anybody to play fair and nice in this campaign."
Both sides pledged to keep so-called super PACs out of the contest, but the reality, Smith says, is that neither really can control such outside spending. Super PACs are allowed to raise unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations, and unions but cannot coordinate their spending with the campaigns.
"Of course [the pledge] is not going to hold," Smith says. "It's great PR early on in the campaign, and they can plausibly say that they have no control over it anyway."
Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter.