This Thursday brings the first debate of Massachusetts's blockbuster US Senate campaign. But the real showdown that will decide the contest is not between incumbent Scott Brown and challenger Elizabeth Warren, but between Brown and the Republican Party.
Now that summer's over and the sprint is on to the November 6 election, polls and most close observers agree on where the race stands: each candidate has a solid 45 percent of the vote tucked away, and they pretty much cancel each other out. Brown has a slight lead, but that should be negated by Warren's expected turnout advantage.
This leaves the race in the hands of the middle 10 percent, or some 300,000 persuadable voters statewide.
Who are those 10 percent? Put simply: they like Brown, but they hate the GOP. They plan overwhelmingly to vote for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney — by a six-to-one margin, according to a recent poll from Kimball Political Consulting. And yet people close to the Brown campaign, and a lot of others, believe that in the Senate race, people will ultimately vote the person, not the party.
Frankly, most Democratic insiders used to think so, too. That's why, even with the expected outpouring of Democratic voters for the presidential election, the state's A-list Democrats, including all of its US House members, statewide and county officeholders, and state senators, declined to enter the race.
But when Warren jumped in, and immediately shot up in the polls and raised unthinkable sums from progressives nationwide, expectations skyrocketed.
As a result, when Brown opened up his slim lead this summer, it unleashed a torrent of criticism, locally and in national publications, about the Warren campaign. Some of it seems justified: her ads have been unmemorable, she has been far too sheltered, and she has done little damage to Brown's reputation as a nice guy and an independent politician.
But it's also a little unfair. A year ago, any Democrat in the state would have been thrilled at the prospect of a candidate entering the final stretch of the campaign in a virtual dead heat with Brown, with poll numbers equal to his, and the resources to match him ad for ad.
"I REALLY LIKE YOU, BUT&ldots;"
So now it comes down to those few, Obama-supporting, Brown-liking voters, and whether a majority of them will vote for Brown, or against the GOP.
As it happens, Warren campaign manager Mindy Myers ran a campaign in very similar circumstances six years ago, and just a little way down Route I-95.
In Rhode Island's 2006 Senate race, Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse narrowly defeated incumbent Republican Lincoln Chafee, by emphasizing that with George Bush in the White House and a then-Republican majority in the US House, liberal voters needed to prevent a matching Republican majority in the US Senate.
It worked so well, one of Chafee's final TV ads featured him speaking directly to the camera, acknowledging that "All the time, people tell me, 'Linc, I really like you, but I have to send Bush a message.'" Chafee countered by stressing his independence — just as Brown is doing now.
At this point in that race, the polls showed an even split. In the end, Whitehouse won with 53 percent of the vote.
The task might be a little tougher for Warren, but there's no reason to think it can't be done.