What the Second Brown-Warren Debate Says About Gender in Politics

As Elizabeth Warren treads the fine line demanded of female candidates, Scott Brown delivers an ungentlemanly performance.

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Associated Press

What is the lasting impression Massachusetts voters may have following the latest Scott Brown-Elizabeth Warren Senate debate? Maybe that Scott Brown isn't quite as nice as his image would suggest.

Brown appeared unnecessarily combative Monday night -- most notably cutting Warren off at one point with "I am not a student in your classroom," which drew boos from the crowd.

The contrast between Brown and Warren's demeanors was pretty stark. She has a smart, soft-spoken, Midwestern style. So the somewhat mean, macho Brown offensive attack felt like overkill and a replay of the approach he took two years ago in his race against Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley. Brown used a similar line on Coakley -- telling her, "I'm not in your courtroom. I'm not a defendant" -- during a debate.

Brown depicted himself in that campaign as a guy's guy wearing a canvas barncoat and driving his pickup truck around the state, and he won the male vote by 13 points.

Last fall, when a reporter mentioned that Brown posed nude for a magazine photo to help pay for Boston College Law School and asked Warren how she paid for college, she quipped, "I didn't take my clothes off." To which Brown retorted, "thank God" -- pronounced gawd in Massachusetts speak -- essentially calling Warren unattractive.

In this race there's a bit of gender role reversal when it comes to appearance and intelligence. Warren, the Harvard professor, doesn't seem overly concerned with the hair and make-up aspect of politics. while Brown has been celebrated for his good looks and is reportedly sensitive about being taken seriously by his Senate colleagues or any suggestion that he's a lightweight.

Voters who already like Scott Brown and plan to vote for him no doubt appreciated his pugnacity in the debate.

But a recent Boston Globe poll shows Warren with a slight lead in the race and 18 percent of voters undecided, almost all of whom plan to vote for Barack Obama. According to the poll, Obama has a 27 point lead in Massachusetts. Brown will have to convince these voters to split their ticket -- hence his emphasis on trying to portray himself as an independent voice in the Senate who can work with Democrats.

Probably Warren's most persuasive argument is that Brown could be a decisive vote in giving the Republicans a Senate majority. But at the same time he was touting his bipartisan record he was punching away at Warren as if he was in a boxing ring.

Warren more than kept her cool but did show amusement when Brown, asked to name his favorite Supreme Court justice, first named conservative icon Antonin Scalia. After negative reaction from the crowd, Brown recited a laundry list of what sounded like every justice he could think of, across the ideological spectrum.

Women in political debates are often in a no-win situation. They can't look passive, but if they fight back they are accused of being "unladylike," as GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin referred to Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill. Akin, who clearly has problems with women on many levels, also rather oddly referred to McCaskill as a "wildcat."

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Linda Killian is a Washington journalist and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Her book The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents was published in January 2012 by St. Martin's Press.

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