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In first debate, Warren leaves an opening

Posted by Rob Anderson  October 5, 2011 03:34 PM

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davis_debate4_met-1.jpgIf you’re a Democrat who would never vote for Republican Senator Scott Brown, Elizabeth Warren did fine in her first political debate. If you’re a rival — Republican or Democrat — she left openings.

As expected, Warren played up her role as middle-class champion and warrior against an out-of-control Wall Street. She had a funny line about paying for college without taking off her clothes as Scott Brown famously did via a Cosmo centerfold during his law school days. She also had a good answer to a question about how the candidates would handle a mistake: Warren said she would face the music by herself, without dragging up any family members for a show of support.

But the Harvard professor wasn’t the whole show, a reality that is small consolation to five rivals who are still fighting to break free of those dreaded words: “Also in the race.”

State Rep. Thomas Conroy of Wayland showed an eye for what counts as the middle in a group that veers sharply left, when he talked about the “creative tension” between democracy and capitalism. Marisa DeFranco channeled the passion and feistiness of an underdog lawyer up against a white shoe law firm. Alan Khazei, the City Year founder who is considered Warren’s closest competitor, showed a flash of humor and honesty when he said he inhaled and enjoyed it. Khazei also did more than talk the talk about supporting the Occupy movement against Wall Street. He said he visited the demonstrators in Boston. Engineer Herb Robinson played the Everyman candidate, and demonstrated the self-deprecating humor of a candidate with Chris Christie’s girth. Bob Massie, a onetime candidate for lieutenant governor, took something of a shot at Warren, when he alluded to a “rush to judgment” over which candidate should be the one to take on Brown. But those rivals will have a tough time derailing the Warren juggernaut. The bigger question is, along the way, will they collectively tilt too far to the left and derail the Democrat who goes up against Brown.

You could almost peer into the professor’s brain and see the independent voters she was thinking about when she came out against legalizing marijuana and announced that she had urged her children to consider the military. But then Warren said she supported in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants. And in a Wednesday morning 96.9 FM radio interview on the Jim & Margery show, Warren said she is on Governor Deval Patrick’s side when it comes to opposing Secure Communities.

Secure Communities, the focus of a heated debate in Massachusetts over illegal immigration, is a data-sharing program between the FBI and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency in the Department of Homeland Security. Under the program, the FBI crosschecks its fingerprint database with immigration databases to identify illegal immigrants arrested by state and local police. Some of those arrested are then subject to deportation.

Massachusetts Republicans jumped quickly on the immigration issue. “Professor Warren’s far-left immigration views may win her praise in a Democratic primary and on the streets of Cambridge, but they are far out of the mainstream among independent Massachusetts voters who want their elected officials to be combating the problem of illegal immigration, not encouraging it,” said Jennifer Nassour, Chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party. “Providing in-state tuition to people in this country illegally serves as a magnet for others to break the law, and is the wrong approach. By turning a blind eye to the very real problem of illegal immigration, Professor Warren is demonstrating how out-of-touch she is on an important issue to many Massachusetts voters.”

The liberal base wants Warren right where she staked out her ground on immigration. Wriggling away will be a problem; her Democratic rivals won’t let her. But the hunt for the center has begun. It’s only a matter of time before someone asks what part of “illegal” does a Harvard law professor fail to understand?

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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