Daniel Doherty

The moment has finally arrived. After months of retail politicking and back-and-forth banter, tonight -- at 7:00 pm in the great city of Boston -- US Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren will face off against incumbent Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) in what reportedly will be the first of four, head-to-head television debates. It goes without saying, of course, that the stakes have never been higher.

It’s worth remembering that in the months leading up to the 2010 special election in Massachusetts (a contest to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat) Scott Brown was widely dismissed as a longshot. In fact, weeks before the January 19th election, the Republican hopeful trailed then-Democratic Senate candidate Martha Coakley by almost double digits. And yet a remarkable debate performance just before voters cast their ballots (the same debate, incidentally, Brown uttered his now-famous “it’s the people’s seat” quip) changed the trajectory of the race. And as the saying goes, the rest is history.

Brown's stellar performance in that highly-publicized debate, which ultimately led to his comeback victory, underscores just how important these match-ups can be, especially in a state like Massachusetts. Remember -- this is a deeply blue state where about 50 percent of the electorate do not identify with either major political party (and according to a recent poll) six percent of the electorate are still undecided. And since tonight is the first televised debate of the election season, I expect to see (a) large, enthusiastic crowds and (b) increased media scrutiny.

So what should we be thinking about before the lights dim and the candidates take the stage? In my view, Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown face significant challenges this evening. Let’s start with the latter.

Senator Brown has gone to great lengths, especially in recent weeks, to distance himself from Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, as well as his controversial “47 percent” comments -- which, of course, he emphatically repudiated. And there’s a reason why: Governor Mitt Romney trails President Obama by 18 percentage points in Massachusetts, according to a recent PPP poll. This is especially disconcerting because Mitt Romney is not some random, relatively unknown GOP presidential candidate -- he was, after all, governor of the state for four straight years! So if Brown wants to court middle-of-the-road Massachusians, he must appeal to a plurality of voters who will no doubt support President Obama in November. Thus, tonight he must walk a delicate line between embracing certain conservative principles, while at the same time distancing himself from the 2012 Republican ticket. No easy task.

In some ways, Elizabeth Warren should feel right at home this evening. The audience will largely be comprised of the Democratic-leaning voters, many of whom want to see her become the Commonwealth’s next United States Senator. But the buck stops there. As I wrote earlier this week, this is the first time the Harvard professor has run for elected office, making tonight her first public debate. All eyes will be fixated on her performance. Still, throughout the campaign, Team Brown has worked hard to paint her as an Ivy League elitist (as we have reported here and here), so it’s perhaps safe to assume that she will face a question or two about how she represents the interests and values of the middle class. Nonetheless, I am far more interested to see how she reacts to questions pertaining to her “nobody got rich on his own” tirade (will she double down?) as well as her unsubstantiated ethnic heritage claims; a political controversy that has dogged her every step since May. Failing to give a persuasive and defensible (is that even possible?) answer to these kinds of questions could spell disaster for the Senate hopeful. In short, this is why I await her responses with great anticipation.

At any rate, after the debate I will analyze what happened and (hopefully) declare a winner. I will try -- to the best of my ability -- to evaluate the discussion as objectively as possible. One final thought: We have covered this horserace for months -- and tonight -- we will finally get to see each candidate debating the issues of the day on live television. Stay tuned for updates, my friends: It’s going to be an interesting night.

UPDATE - A UMass Lowell/Boston Herald poll released today shows Scott Brown up by six percentage points. That being said, four out of the five polls conducted this week show Elizabeth Warren ahead.

UPDATE II - Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino will endorse Elizabeth Warren tomorrow. Shocker.


Daniel Doherty

Daniel Doherty is Townhall's Deputy News Editor. Follow him on Twitter @danpdoherty.

Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography