(NEW YORK) — On Thursday night Massachusetts voters get their first chance to watch Senate candidates Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown go head-to-head in a televised debate.
The debate is the first in a series of four that will take place throughout the next month across the state. And in a race that has stayed as consistently close as this one, these debates offer both candidates a chance to break through and gain a solid lead in the polls.
“Debates usually don’t change minds. Typically, they reinforce attitudes that are already there,” says Jeffrey Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. “But the race is close, and a gaffe by one could be enough to even up the preferences right now which show Warren slightly up.”
While recent polls have shown Warren with a slight advantage, in the deeply blue state of Massachusetts the toss-up status of the race is not what Democrats had hoped for at this stage in the game. Democrats have long viewed the Massachusetts seat, currently held by Republican Scott Brown, as one of if not their best chance for a pick-up in the general election. Republicans need a net gain of four seats in the Senate to win the majority, and a Democratic pick-up in Massachusetts makes that path to the majority much harder for the GOP. Thursday’s debate could tip the scales in either direction.
Warren and Brown are both strong candidates, but they’ll both have to prove themselves, says Berry.
For Warren, the challenge will come in her presentation, says Berry.
“I think there’s a little bit of risk for Warren. …There’s the risk of her coming across as the smartest person in the room, and coming across unfavorably with the affable Scott Brown. I think what she has to do is convey a greater sense of empathy for middle-class voters,” says Berry.
And for Brown, he will need to prove he’s more than just the likable guy persona we’ve seen highlighted throughout the campaign.
“For Scott Brown, I think there’s risk, too, in that he has difficulty talking about the specifics of public policy because here in Massachusetts, the voters don’t want what Republicans are offering,” Berry says. “In this debate, you have to do more than be affable so he has to demonstrate that he has leadership qualities, and that he’s a fighter and not just a nice guy.”
Both candidates face potential minefields tonight. For Brown, the timing is somewhat inconvenient. Although he has distanced himself from Mitt Romney’s comments about the “47 percent” of Americans he said were “dependent” on government, the topic will inevitably come up, and Brown will have to address it again. Brown will likely continue vocalize his disagreement with what Romney said, and it presents Elizabeth Warren with a clear opportunity to tie Brown to Romney and the GOP.
For Warren, her controversy from the spring regarding her identifying herself as Native American is likely to rear its head again, either in a direct question from the moderator or in remarks from Brown.
Although Thursday night’s debate is not the only opportunity for Brown and Warren to make an impression, they are likely going to have the biggest audience for this first debate.
“The first debate is important because it’ll have the greatest viewership,” says Berry. “The next debate is out in the western part of the state where not as many people live.”
The debate starts at 7 p.m. Come Friday morning, the shape of the Senate race could look very different for Republicans, or for Democrats. Or it could stay exactly the same.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Stephen Collinson, CNN Newswire
Brian Stelter, CNN Money