It wasn't a compliment. As you may recall, Gore was roundly mocked for his exasperated sighs after his first debate with George W. Bush. Brown didn't sigh Thursday night. But he smirked, licked his lips, looked at the ground and had trouble clearing his throat (or maybe sneezing?). He also kicked off the debate by questioning Elizabeth Warren's claims of Native American ancestry with an unexpected, unsettling degree of intensity. For about 30 minutes, Brown was hot and Warren was cool — more relaxed than she's seemed in months, actually. And the contrast wasn't working in Brown's favor.
Then something changed. Brown didn't dazzle after the halfway mark, but he did seem to find his footing. When the candidates were asked if they'd back a Supreme Court nominee who opposed Roe v. Wade, Brown vowed he wouldn't — adding that he, like Warren, is pro-choice.
Afterward, NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts put out a statement challenging that description. But in the moment, it felt like Brown had found his equilibrium. He was back to doing what he does best: embracing the role of the moderate, reasonable Republican who Democrats and independents can feel good about supporting. (For good measure, Brown also gushed over Hillary Clinton's performance as secretary of state.)
Not that Brown left his initial aggressiveness behind. Toward the debate's end, he ripped Warren for her role helping Travelers Insurance limit payouts to asbestos victims. It's a complicated issue, and Brown didn't explain it as well as he might have. But Warren's response — which included asserting that she's not a "career politician" — was strangely weak. Of all Brown's attacks, this one was most effective.
If there were a debate scorecard, I'd give the first half to Warren — for keeping her cool as Brown sputtered, but also for casting Brown's determination to avoid any and all tax increases (even on the highest wage earners) in the most negative light possible. The second half felt like a draw.
But is that good enough for Brown? The poll results aren't conclusive, but they're generally trending in Warren's favor. What's more, Brown has a huge disadvantage with female voters. He tried to address that tonight, saying (among other things) that he'd been "sticking up for women" since he was a six-year-old trying to protect his mother from an abusive boyfriend.
My hunch, though, is that Brown's initial aggressiveness with Warren will more than offset any gains he realized by casting himself as his mother's protector (or Gail's husband and Ayla and Arianna's father, which also came up a couple times). Simply put, I don't think women like seeing a woman being bullied by a man. And at the very outset of the debate, Brown edged perilously close to doing precisely that.
One more wrinkle worth noting. During an exchange on foreign policy, Warren noted that while she's a Barack Obama supporter, Brown is a Romney guy. In his response, Brown conspicuously avoided any mention of the name "Romney."
After the debate, Brown didn't meet the press; instead, his campaign manager Jim Barnett spoke for him. (Brown, we were told, had "had a long day" — an apparent reference to this afternoon's airplane drama and spat with Harry Reid.) Barnett assured us that Brown sees Romney as the best choice for president.
But when I caught up with Brown as he exited WBZ and mentioned Warren's reference to the presidential contest, he again refused to praise Romney, or even utter his name. Instead, he said Warren is trying — and failing — to nationalize the race. Count on this: she's not finished yet.