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Mass. Senate race intensifies with Warren flap

The Massachusetts lawmaker displays impressive basketball skills at a community center, nailing an underhand shot from half-court. TODAY's Natalie Morales reports.

After the shock to Democrats of Scott Brown’s victory in the special Massachusetts Senate election in January 2010 it would be sweet revenge for Democrats if Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren could re-take the seat once held by Ted Kennedy this November.

Brown’s victory seemed a flat rejection of President Obama and his health care bill just 12 months after he’d taken the oath of office.

Warren is a heroine to progressive Democrats due to her work as an expert on consumer bankruptcy and her role as an advisor to Obama on consumer protection policies. But Warren’s crusade against Brown was sidetracked for a few days this week as she grappled with questions about why she’d listed herself as an American Indian in the American Association of Law Schools directory and then dropped that designation at some point after getting her Harvard job.

Steven Senne / AP

Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate Elizabeth Warren talks with reporters during a news conference May 2 at Liberty Bay Credit Union headquarters.

“I listed myself in the directory in the hopes that it might mean that I would be invited to a luncheon, a group something that might happen with people who are like I am,” she said Wednesday.

She added that she was “a little shocked to hear anybody raise a question about whether or not I’m qualified to hold a job teaching.” Referring to Brown, she said, “What does he think it takes for a woman to be qualified?”

In her response to the controversy Warren told reporters that one of her aunts had remarked that Warren’s grandfather “had high cheekbones, like all of the Indians do, because that’s how she saw it.”

The Indian heritage and cheekbone discussion consumed campaign time that Warren might have spent in making the case against Brown. But the good news for her is that it’s only May and a lot of voters are not paying close attention.

The Daily Rundown panel discusses the Massachusetts senate race between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown, and give their shameless plugs.

For his part Brown – the first Republican to serve as a senator from Massachusetts since 1979 --was happy to encourage reporters to keep the focus on Warren’s Indian ancestry. “You guys are asking a lot of questions and I’m learning about it as you are. You’ve asked a lot of questions and she should answer them,” Brown told reporters.

If this Senate race is this tightly focused on Warren’s ancestry and whether Brown was sexist for allegedly thinking her unqualified, one can only imagine how immersed in detail it will be by the October homestretch.

Both on Capitol Hill and in Massachusetts, Brown has been trying hard to make the case that’s he’s getting legislation enacted in a fully bipartisan fashion. He points to his co-sponsorship of a bill to ban members of Congress and congressional staffers from using knowledge gained as part of their job to trade in stocks and commodities trading – a ban that some legal scholars felt was redundant.

Last week the Senate passed another bill cosponsored by Brown, one to keep the U.S. Postal Service in operation and postponing closing of post offices and processing facilities for two years, most of Brown’s Republican colleagues voted against the bill, preferring a quicker, more radical downsizing for the Postal Service.

“We do need to work together in a bipartisan, bicameral manner,” Brown said on the Senate floor as he and his colleagues debated the postal bill. “This is not about Democrats and Republicans or Independents. It is about us as a body showing once again--trying to reestablish that trust with the American people--that, my goodness, the Senate can do things together”

In an appeal to potential ticket-splitters who will support President Obama this November, Brown ran a radio ad this week in which he said “standing with President Obama” on the day he signed it into law a veteran jobs bill “was another one of those great experiences" that he has had a senator.

Brown won the special election in 2010 with 52 percent, defeating Democrat Martha Coakley by more than 107,000 votes.

Coakley was hobbled by a gender gap. In the final pre-election poll from Suffolk University, Brown won 55 percent of male voters to 40 percent for Coakley; among women Coakley won 50 to 45 percent. Brown also won nearly two out of three independents and 17 percent of Democrats.

The most recent poll from Suffolk University in February showed Brown ahead of Warren among men, 55 percent to 38 percent and essentially tied with her among female poll respondents.

“Her strategy is very simple: all she needs to do is to win among women by what she loses men by,” said David Paleologos, director of the Political Research Center at Suffolk University.

Despite the image of Massachusetts being a Democratic bastion, 52 percent of the state’s voters are independents. Paleologos said that Warren “doesn’t need to win among independents to win the election – all she needs to do is keep it close among independents.”