It has been decades since a Democrat entered a Massachusetts Senate race as the underdog. The state is the bluest after California and there is still only one Republican among its 12 representatives in Congress.
But that Republican happens to be Scott Brown, the onetime Cosmopolitan centrefold who snatched the late Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in a 2010 special election on the strength of his small-town likeability, varsity crew charisma and Tea Party financing.
As he fights now for a full six-year term, Mr. Brown, 52, remains a king of cool. Just last week, he managed to sink a basketball from half-court during a visit to youth centre.
Elizabeth Warren, 62, has not yet attempted a similar feat. But Mr. Brown’s Democratic challenger is doing just about everything else to shed the elitist image her rival’s campaign has sought to pin on her. If that takes pledging fealty to Fenway Park, the home of the Boston Red Sox, so be it.
As she swooped into the annual meeting of a state teacher’s union here, Ms. Warren, a first-time candidate, delivered a stump speech that dwelled heavily on her humble dust-belt roots and rise to the upper echelons of academia. She did not mention her rival.
“I am the daughter of a maintenance man [and I]ended up as a fancy professor at Harvard Law School,” she told the Massachusetts wing of the American Federation of Teachers, which has endorsed her. “But I fear the story I just told is a story embedded in time.”
Republican efforts to slash government – sapping investments in education, infrastructure and basic research – have left her fearful for future generations, she said. “I don’t want us to be a country that says: ‘I got mine. The rest of you are on your own.’ ”
The Massachusetts race is the hottest Senate contest this year and not just because of the star power of the candidates or the record amounts of money that will be spent on it. Ms. Warren has given Democrats their only real hope of picking up a Senate seat in 2012.
She was persuaded to run after two years in the Obama administration, first chairing the panel that monitored the bank bailouts and then as a special assistant to the President overseeing the creation of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Her public sparring with bankers and Republicans in Congress made her an instant idol of the left.
Liberal Democrats see her as the true heir to Mr. Kennedy. He was the “lion of the Senate.” They are doing everything to make Ms. Warren their lioness of the upper chamber.
The question facing Massachusetts voters is whether she is too liberal, even for them. When the ideological divide in Congress seems wider than ever, Ms. Warren would do little to bridge it.
The Oklahoma native, who honeymooned on Cape Breton Island and professes a love for hiking in the Canadian Rockies, fiercely opposes the Keystone XL pipeline. In an interview, she called the stalled Canada-U.S. oil pipeline “environmentally dangerous.”
Mr. Brown, who strongly supports the Keystone project, calls her a “rock-thrower” and casts himself as a “problem-solver.” Though he aligned himself with the Tea Party in 2010, he has emerged, by his own account, as the “second most bipartisan senator.” Maine's Susan Collins is the only Republican with a more moderate voting record.
Mr. Brown has routinely spurned his party. He voted for the financial-reform legislation Ms. Warren helped write and to repeal the ban on gays serving openly in the military. But he sided with Republicans in voting against a proposed minimum tax on millionaires.
“He attracts blue collar like nobody else,” conceded Sean Brooks, 36, a Boston teacher who supports Ms. Warren. “But beyond the pick-up truck, he does not reflect labour values whatsoever.”
As the presumptive Democratic Senate nominee – the primary is not until September, but Ms. Warren has no serious competition – she can count on the resources of the Massachusetts big blue machine and has much more money coming in than Mr. Brown (though he still has a bigger war chest).
But if she has any hope of winning in November, Ms. Warren must win back the white, working- and middle-class voters of Massachusetts. Until Mr. Brown came along, they had not voted Republican in a presidential or Senate race since Ronald Reagan last ran in 1984.
For now, they remain with Mr. Brown. A poll last month gave him the support of 48 per cent of voters in union households, compared to 41 per cent for Ms. Warren. An average of recent polls shows the candidates in a dead heat among all voters, however.
“This campaign will be determined by whose base gets really energized,” offered Boston College political science professor Dennis Hale. “There are apparently a lot more Republican-leaning voters in this state than people thought.”
But Ms. Warren, who is already campaigning full-time with six months to go, is relishing the challenge of making Massachusetts a one-party state again.