BOSTON (Reuters) - Consumer advocate and former Obama administration official Elizabeth Warren got into the nitty-gritty of campaigning for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts on Tuesday, facing off in her first political debate.
The Harvard Law School professor, who has never before run for office, lined up at the University of Massachusetts Lowell with five lesser-known Democrats who stand between her and a shot at unseating Republican Scott Brown in 2012.
Democrats are eager to take back the seat that Brown won in an upset in January 2010 in a special election after the death of longtime Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy in 2009.
Warren, who locked horns with Wall Street in her work setting up the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has gotten the backing of national progressive groups since jumping into the race in September. On Monday, she was endorsed by Massachusetts Congresswoman Niki Tsongas.
Two recent polls of potential Democratic primary voters suggest Warren is almost assured of winning her party’s nomination in a September primary. She rates highly, for now, in terms of favorability and name recognition.
Warren received hearty applause from the audience and as she and her rivals parried questions ranging from serious (“Would you support Obama’s jobs bill”) to light (“What superhero would you be, and why?).
Dressed in red jacket and black slacks, Warren hewed close to the populist themes used when she launched her campaign last month: fighting for the middle class, and reining in the power of Wall Street.
“What this has been about from the beginning, for me, is middle class families,” Warren said. “This is my life’s work.”
Later, asked if she supported the current “Occupy Wall Street” protest movement, Warren said that as a starting point, the protesters must follow the law.
Beyond that, “people on Wall Street broke this country, and they did it one lousy mortgage at a time,” she said.
The housing market remains a bane for Massachusetts and the country, Warren said. “We need to ... take serious and hard steps to get this housing market to level out, so we can start rebuilding our economy.”
Warren said she does not endorse mandatory military service but that women in the military should be able to serve in combat positions. “Frankly, I think women are just as tough as men,” she said.
Maurice Cunningham, political science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, termed the debate mostly uneventful. Warren “admitted to being somewhat nervous, as she well might be. But she can now claim to have faced her first political test,” Cunningham said.
Joining Warren on Tuesday were Bob Massie, an entrepreneur and one-time candidate for lieutenant governor; Alan Khazei, co-founder of the City Year youth program; Tom Conroy, a state legislator; Marisa DeFranco, an immigration lawyer; and Herb Robinson, an engineer.
A new survey by UMass Lowell and the Boston Herald shows Warren at 38 percent support against 41 percent for Brown, the Republican incumbent, within the poll’s margin of error.
Last week, David Axelrod, a top adviser to Obama, raised hackles with some of the other contenders by saying he expected Warren would win the Democratic primary, which is almost a year away.
Washington power brokers “have already picked a candidate,” Khazei spokesman Scott Ferson said, claiming victory in Tuesday’s debate.
For the record, Warren said she fancied herself as Wonder Woman, the DC Comics heroine: “Such a cool outfit, and the bracelets — they were the whole thing for me.”
Reporting by Ros Krasny; Editing by Cynthia Johnston