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Wed September 19, 2012
Before the U.S. Senate Debate, Tactics and Threats
Thursday, Sept. 20 is the first U.S. Senate debate between Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown and challenger Elizabeth Warren. You may have seen the candidates in commercials or in little snippets in the news. But this is the first time we’ll see them walk on stage together, shake hands, look each other in the eye and debate the issues. With polls reflecting a close race, a lot is at stake.
What tactics will they use?
Lucy van Pelt versus Joe Cool
"What Elizabeth Warren has to avoid is appearing to be the smartest kid in the class. That’s rarely appealing," said Tobe Berkowitz, who teaches political advertising at Boston University. "She can’t come across as a know-it-all and she can’t come across as too aggressive."
Brown has a different challenge, Berkowitz said. "He has messages he wants to get across and he doesn’t really wander away from that. Sometimes voters think he’s programmed and evading tough questions."
Ethan Becker, a Cambridge-area image consultant and speech coach, said Brown has created a very likeable personality for himself.
"Scott has a style that’s very conversational. It’s natural-feeling. He has a way about him when he’s under attack, saying, like, 'Well, hey, I’m just saying, this is what it is,' and then he moves on and mellows it out," Becker said. The result? "Maybe you heard people say, 'Hey, he’s the kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with.' George [W.] Bush had a similar thing. And that really sells.”
Indeed, it worked for Brown 2 years ago when he debated Martha Coakley on his way to winning the U.S. Senate seat. In those exchanges, Becker said Coakley came across as the enforcer, as if she were saying, “'I know the rules, this is the way it is, you better follow it or else.' That type of style versus the cool kid.”
Fast-forward and Brown faces another woman. In addition to different styles, Becker said the candidate's different genders also figure into voters’ perceptions.
"It’s very unfair with women. Women have a very difficult time in speech communication. There’s a very, very fine line between aggressive and arrogant. Women who are aggressive tend to be rewarded. Arrogant women are called mean names and there’s a fine line between the two. It’s an unfair thing and it’s something that women in the public eye, they have to deal with it,” he said.
Nancy Bauer, a philosophy professor at Tufts University, said women also have to contend with a double standard when it comes to appearance.
"Men have a literal uniform that they can wear no matter what their profession is," she said. "If they’re a politician or a businessman, let’s say, they can wear a suitably conservative suit, in a suitably conservative color, with a suitably conservative tie. Suitably short hair and their appearance simply becomes a non-issue. However, women have no such uniform to wear when they are not literally wearing a uniform required for a job. So anything women wear seem to say something about who they are, what they value, what kind of person they are, and there’s just no way around it."
A Republican in undecided colors?
While Brown doesn’t have to deal with a fashion problem, he does face the challenge of how much to embrace his own party.
"The challenge for Scott Brown is not to come across as a Republican," Berkowitz said. "The fact is that 50 percent of the voters in Massachusetts are independent or unenrolled, and a small percentage are Republican."
Neither candidate wants to take their supporters for granted. But Becker, the image consultant, said the debate tonight is really about making an emotional connection to the key undecided voters.
"In either side of the campaign, there are going to be listeners who [are] strong no matter what you say. You can get up and say 'blah blah blah blah' and your listeners will love you and say that was brilliant. So in a campaign you’re looking for those people who could go one way or the other," he said.
And it's those people — the undecideds — for whom image, demeanor, personality, all those small details will really count, tonight and in the coming weeks of this campaign.