It didn't take long for Massachusetts GOP Sen. Scott P. Brown's past as a naked centerfold in Cosmopolitan magazine to emerge as an issue in his likely re-election bout against Democrat Elizabeth Warren, President Obama's former top consumer-finance adviser.
Mrs. Warren, the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination, took a shot at Mr. Brown this week, responding, "I kept my clothes on" when asked at the first Democratic primary debate how she paid for college.
"Thank God," was Mr. Brown's cheeky response when asked about the comment on Boston radio station WZLX-FM. (Click here to listen)
Mr. Brown frequently has defended his 1982 appearance in the magazine, where he posed nude — albeit with an arm draped strategically — to earn money for college. Drawing laughter from the disc jockeys, he added, "Whatever, let her throw stones; I did what I had to do. But not for having that opportunity, I never would have been able to pay for school, and I probably wouldn't have gone to school, and I wouldn't be talking to you."
The dust-up could just be a warm-up to what is expected to be a fierce and costly fight for a seat heavy with symbolism for both parties. Mr. Brown occupies the seat long held by liberal lion Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, and his surprise January 2010 special-election win, greatly aided by tea party activists, was widely seen as a harbinger of the GOP resurgence in midterm elections nine months later.
Mrs. Warren is quickly becoming a source of angst for Bay State Republicans, with polls showing her in a virtual dead heat with Mr. Brown just weeks after the Harvard law professor and critic of the nation's financial industry entered the race. With Democrats clinging to a four-seat working majority in the Senate, the Brown-Warren battle also could prove crucial to overall control of the Senate.
Heavily favored to win the Democratic primary, Mrs. Warren has built a reputation for consumer advocacy that she's pitting against Mr. Brown, who has pocketed more donations from the financial sector than any other lawmaker except for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Democrat.
"All I could think about was that 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,' " Mrs. Warren said during Tuesday's debate.
The election hinges on a key Massachusetts constituency: independent voters who usually lean Democratic but tipped the scales heavily in Mr. Brown's favor last year against Democratic state Attorney General Martha Coakley, whom he defeated 52 percent to 47 percent.
Making up half of all Massachusetts voters, they generally belong to the "lunchpail" working class that usually identifies with Democrats, but will vote for Republicans if convinced they'll buck the party, said David King, a Harvard public-policy professor.
"They're going to be going after Dunkin' Donuts Democrats," Mr. King said. "These are voters that want to see their senators with some independence."
The race has drawn the attention of Wall Street, which eyes Mrs. Warren with deep suspicion for her role on the financial bailout oversight panel and as the primary architect of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, established under the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul package passed by Congress last year.
Banks and investment companies flooded Mr. Brown with donations last year when he fought for concessions during the Dodd-Frank debate, convincing lawmakers to remove from the legislation $19 billion in fees on the financial industry that would have paid for part of the overhaul, and to weaken a measure limiting certain types of investment activities by banks and insurers.
Mr. Brown insists he's no puppet of the industry. After pushing for changes that made the regulatory overhaul more palatable to bankers, he upset some by joining two other Republicans to vote for the final version, which included a controversial provision allowing the Federal Reserve to limit debit-card swipe fees.
"I voted for the financial reform," Mr. Brown told The Washington Times. "I was happy to do it, and that was a bill, if I remember correctly, they didn't want me to vote for. So I'm just going to continue to be that independent voter and thinker, and do exactly what I've always done."
For her part, Mrs. Warren led the congressional watchdog panel monitoring the $700 billion Wall Street bailout passed under President George W. Bush, and became known for pushing for measures to give consumers more rights and protections from abusive lending practices. She later moved to the White House as an adviser to Mr. Obama on consumer finance issues.
She stepped down in July to return to a teaching position at Harvard and to run for the Senate, after it became clear her nomination to run Mr. Obama's new Consumer Financial Protection Board would be scuttled by Republican opposition.
"I've stood toe-to-toe with the largest financial institutions in the country and sometimes with our own government," she said at Tuesday's debate. "I have fought with them over bank bailouts, I have fought with them over mortgages, I have fought with them over credit cards, I have fought with them over targeting military families for terrible credit products and, quite frankly, that's what I think you have to do."
Mrs. Warren faces five opponents in the Democratic primary: state Rep. Tom Conroy; immigration lawyer Marisa DeFranco; Alan Khazei, co-founder of the nonprofit service organization City Year; Robert Massie, candidate for Massachusetts lieutenant governor in 1994; and engineer Herb Robinson.
Mr. Khazei took a jab at Mrs. Warren, reminding voters of the time she has spent inside the Beltway. "The Washington establishment will get their way, and the election will be over before it starts," he said.
So far, Mrs. Warren is looking like a formidable opponent. While she hasn't yet released any fundraising reports, she tops donations on ActBlue — a website that raises money for Democrats — with some 30,000 donors contributing nearly $750,000.
And although she joined the race in September, Mrs. Warren trailed Mr. Brown by just 3 percentage points in the first poll in the race, conducted Sept. 22 to 28 by the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and the Boston Herald.
Still, Mr. Brown held a 19-point advantage among independents and was supported by 16 percent of Democrats, compared to 6 percent support for Mrs. Warren among Republicans. He's got a mountain of cash to try to keep that support, with nearly $10 million in his campaign coffers.
Observers agree that the race is wide open and almost certainly will attract hefty funding and logistical support from both parties.
"I think it will be very, very close," said Douglas Kriner, a political-science professor at Boston University. "I think the parties on both sides will pump money into this race, and it will be a nail-biter down to the wire."
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