BOSTON — Massachusetts's hotly contested U.S. Senate race — between a former Obama administration appointee and the Republican who won the late Ted Kennedy's seat — took a comedic turn Sunday as the two candidates jockeyed for laughs and votes at one of the state's rites of political passage: South Boston's St. Patrick's Day Breakfast.
Elizabeth Warren, the former Obama administration consumer advocate, and Sen. Scott Brown, who stunned Democrats in 2010 by winning in the traditionally solid-blue state, took to the stage for the part-roast, part-Irish variety show.
Making her debut at the annual breakfast, Warren — the consumer champion and Harvard professor whom the Brown campaign has cast as an Ivy League liberal — poked fun at herself as diners polished off plates of scrambled eggs and corned beef hash. She said she's often asked why she wants to serve in the Senate, given that it's "filled with enormous egos" and "nothing gets done."
"I always say, 'Hey, I worked at Harvard, I'll feel right at home,'" she said.
She also poked fun at the iconic barn jacket Brown wore as he barnstormed the state as a candidate, saying she'd heard he paid $600 for it.
"Wow," she said. "Here's a guy who could use a consumer advocate."
In January 2010, Brown won the "Kennedy seat" occupied by Sen. Edward Kennedy and before him John F. Kennedy, and Democrats are anxious to take it back. Republicans, who believe they've got a shot at taking control of the Senate this year, need to hold the seat, making it one of the most watched Senate races in the country.
The breakfast is a chance for candidates to show that they can deliver jokes as well as take them, and Brown used his time at the lectern to cast Warren as a lofty academic who's out of touch with ordinary voters.
He joked that he recently counseled Warren that "people view you as an elite." Warren, he said, replied, "I bet you a bottle of Dom Perignon that's not true."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also came in for jabs for his efforts to court conservatives and his recent admission that his wife, Ann, drives "a couple of Cadillacs."
Brown, who's close to Romney but is running as a moderate in Massachusetts, joked that he almost didn't make it to the breakfast because the truck he famously drove to victory in 2010 has "230,000 miles on it.
"But Gov. Romney was nice enough to give me one of his Caddys," he said to laughter.
Brown was a little-known state senator when he won the seat in what many analysts interpreted as a rebuke to Obama that imperiled the president's bid to pass his health care overhaul.
Brown's victory marked the first time since 1972 that a Republican won a Massachusetts Senate race. Democrats have viewed Warren — who championed the creation of Obama's Consumer Financial Protection Bureau but didn't get the job running it because of GOP opposition — as a superstar, but recent polls suggest Brown has regained an edge over his challenger.
The roast has been a South Boston tradition for more than seven decades, but organizers acknowledge it's not as ribald as it once was. However, one speaker did suggest a job for Brown should he lose the Senate race: a pitchman for the men's virility drug Cialis, along with former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole.
"Republican senators know when the moment is right," read the caption of a fake Cialis ad, complete with doctored photos of Brown and Dole in bathtubs in front of the U.S. Capitol.
State Sen. Jack Hart, who's hosted the event for more than a decade, told Boston.com that with the introduction of TV cameras in the 1980s, the breakfast evolved from a "backroom closed event where people could be a little more racy in their humor" to a family-friendly event that's carried live on local cable.
The breakfast has also sought to broaden its appeal beyond politicians by booking top Irish musical acts, including the Irish punk band, the Dropkick Murphys .
What it might have lost in edge, it's gained in attendance. Once held at a small South Boston restaurant, it now takes place at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, a sprawling new waterfront building.
As Brown and Warren worked the room, a standing-room-only crowd stood along the sides, hoping for a seat at the tables decorated with pots of shamrocks.
"This is on my bucket list," said Bill Durkee, 72, of nearby Waltham, attending the breakfast for the first time. "This is the holy grail of Massachusetts politics."
Durkee didn't score a seat but hoped that someone would leave early so he could move in. Or, he said, "at least toss me a muffin."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2012