Brown, Warren Spar in Massachusetts Senate Race

Heavy-weight candidates face-off in close Senate contest

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Already one of the most closely contested Senate races in the country, the battle between Republican Sen. Scott Brown and Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren is heating up in Massachusetts.

Brown's team has been quick to jump on media reports that Harvard University advertised Warren as a minority professor in the 1990's, thanks to a distant Native American heritage. According to a report by the Boston Herald, Harvard was facing scrutiny at the time for a lack of diversity. It touted Warren to the Harvard Crimson newspaper as its first woman minority hire for a tenured position.

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Brown's campaign has insinuated she used minority status to get ahead, but Warren's team says she did not promote herself as a minority to Harvard. A subsequent news report did reveal that she did voluntarily list herself as a minority in a professional directory for nearly a decade.

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe also reported Tuesday that Brown, who voted against the federal healthcare bill, is taking advantage of the controversial measure's provision that allows his 23-year-old daughter on his health insurance plan. Brown, who was elected in a special election to replace liberal lion Sen. Ted Kennedy during the Tea Party fever of 2010, campaigned heavily on his opposition to the legislation.

As the race stands, Brown is banking on selling himself as a regular guy and independent voice to voters in the deep blue state. Warren, a progressive darling known for her work as a consumer advocate, hopes to focus on the issues, rather than a referendum on her personal wealth or likeability.

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Ralph Whitehead, a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, says both candidates can be hurt by the superficial issues getting battered about in the press.

"If the charge that the Brown campaign has made against her sticks, namely that she herself took the step of listing herself in a directory as a member of a minority group it makes her look a little silly but I don't think it makes her look terminally silly," he says.

As for Brown, Whitehead adds that the federal health care law—which mirrors similar legislation in the Bay State signed by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney—is actually quite popular.

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"Simply by reminding voters in Massachusetts that he voted against it, even if he and his daughter were not taking advantage of it, isn't a plus for him," he says.

But the real significance of these campaign shots has yet to be determined, Whitehead says.

"To the degree that this competition is defined as a competition between personalities, these kinds of considerations become relevant," he says. "A public debate over the personality traits of these two candidates will probably not help Elizabeth Warren. But a public debate over issues where she can pit her position on those issues against the incumbent's voting record could work to her advantage."

The most recent polling showed Warren up by just one point over Brown, well within the survey's margin of error.

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  • Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at rmetzler@usnews.com or follow her on Twitter.