Wednesday night's debate between Massachusetts Senate candidates Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren contained a first: There was no mention of Warren's claim to Cherokee heritage.
The controversy over Warren's ancestry has been a major sparring point up until now, with Brown, the Republican incumbent who won his seat in a special election in 2010, accusing his challenger of falsely identifying as a minority in order to receive preferential treatment. But both candidates seemed to be happy to leave the subject behind and talk policy during their third debate: With the two neck and neck—Brown leading Warren 47 to 43 percent, according to a WBUR/MassInc poll—Brown's attacks haven't changed the race's dynamic and have resulted in some perceiving him as a bully.
The audience at Springfield Symphony Hall, however, didn't shy away from cheering, hissing and jeering, despite the rules of etiquette laid out by moderator Jim Madigan of WGBY-TV.
"I'm losing control," Madigan said with a sigh halfway through the debate.
Even without talk of Warren's heritage, the candidates did manage to squeeze in a few debate "zingers" amid the exchange of views on job creation, taxes, women's issues and foreign policy.
After Warren repeated her favorite line, that the middle class has been "hammered" by tax breaks for the wealthy and loopholes for elites and corporations, Brown shot back: "When you talk about getting hammered, Professor Warren, I suggest you put down the hammer," he said to both groans and applause, "because your policies hurt the middle class."
Warren didn't hold back, either. Calling her opponent a warden of the wealthy and the powerful, she declared: "Instead of working for the people of Massachusetts, [Brown] has chosen to work for Grover Norquist."
Brown responded by saying that he did not mind the association.
Finally, during a discussion of women's issues, Brown labeled himself a pro-choice moderate, but Warren lambasted the senator's voting against equal-pay legislation.
"We should not be fighting about equal pay in 2012. This was an issue that was settled years ago, until the Republicans," she said, casting a harsh glance in Brown's direction, "brought it back."
Although the candidates backed off of the more personal attack lines, the race remains tight and shows no sign of losing intensity leading up to Election Day. On Wednesday, Warren showed no hesitation to keep nationalizing her Senate bid by connecting it to the national race, despite recent polls that show a closing gap between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
Despite consensus in the media and polling that Obama faltered in his first debate last week, Warren felt comfortable declaring support for the president while comparing her opponent to Romney.
Throughout the debate, Brown seemed unwilling to step up and defend his party's national ticket, even as it is gains momentum. Such is the strategy in a deep blue state, where the president still leads by high double digits.