By Cottle, Michelle | Newsweek, September 24, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Cottle, Michelle, Newsweek

Byline: Michelle Cottle

How Scott Brown bashes a woman without losing the women's vote.

Call it the battle of the fluff-n-fold.

At a breakfast gathering of Massachusetts Democrats at this month's national convention, state party chairman John Walsh joked that Republican Sen. Scott Brown had "spent a couple million dollars folding towels on TV to prove he's an honorary girl" in his race against Elizabeth Warren. The dig referred to a Brown campaign ad, targeting women voters, in which the senator is shown doing laundry.

Team Brown's response was fast and furious. They blamed the Warren campaign for the "negative attacks" and tied Walsh's remarks to Warren's comment that same week that in her ads "you probably won't see me folding laundry."

Angela Davis, chairwoman of Women for Brown, fired off this zinger: "It seems Professor Warren and her spokesman can't decide if they are just too good to fold laundry, or if household chores are suitable only for women."

Within hours, Walsh apologized. But no way the senator's people were letting go of this bone. Davis promptly sent both Warren and Walsh a gift basket of laundry supplies, along with a note (thoughtfully posted on Brown's campaign site): "With all the mudslinging Elizabeth Warren and her allies have been doing, we thought these laundry supplies would be a useful gift. We might never see Professor Warren fold her own clothes, but she does need to clean up her act and stop with her dirty politics."

How exactly does the manliest man in the Senate--a hunky triathlete, diehard sports fan, and colonel in the Army National Guard--wind up alleging political emasculation at the hands of a slight, bespectacled Harvard professor and grandmother of three? Such is the peculiar state of the Massachusetts Senate contest, in which a candidate most famous for being a hard-charging, high-powered academic is up against one most famous for having modeled nude, but with all the expected gender roles upended.

The situation presents a tricky stretch of political road for Brown. If things weren't tough enough for a Republican trying to hold Ted Kennedy's old seat in true-blue Massachusetts, this time around he must dismantle an accomplished, nationally prominent female opponent--in a year when his party is being accused by Democrats of waging a war on women--without tarnishing the mild-mannered, affable-guy image that is the cornerstone of his political persona. To this end, Brown is laboring to woo Bay State women with his pro-choice views and family-man bona fides.

Like any good pol, Brown knows how to exploit an opening. In the wake of Missouri Rep. Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" blunder, Brown was the first prominent Republican to call for Akin to abandon his Senate candidacy--a move that won Brown a truckload of positive media. Scrambling to burst her opponent's bubble, Warren charged that the senator's vote against equal pay and his cosponsoring of an amendment aimed at letting employers opt out of birth-control coverage for moral reasons showed that he was sympathetic to the "radical Republican agenda." A fired-up Brown doubled down: the week before the GOP convention, he sent an open letter to Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, opposing the anti-abortion plank in the party's platform. Again the media raves came rolling in, and Brown got to spend another several days touting his own iconoclasm. "That's what being an independent is: not being beholden to anybody," he explained to Newsweek two days after scolding his party. "It's not unusual for me to go out there and criticize when somebody says something as ridiculous as what Akin said."

Political positioning aside, the heart of Brown's appeal is his regular-guy persona: the pickup truck, the barn jacket, the sports talk, the mumbly, rambly speaking style.

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