ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now, one of the races where the Paycheck Fairness Act has been an issue. Massachusetts Republican Senator Scott Brown has opposed it and his Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren used it as another opportunity to take Brown to task today. Warren may be emboldened by new polls that show the race a dead heat.
Many expected her to be further behind after weeks of drubbing for classifying herself as Native American while she was working as a law professor at Harvard and elsewhere. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: The past few days have been better than Warren has seen in a while. She won a record 96 percent support at her party convention, enough to quash her only remaining primary challenger and finally, after weeks embroiled in controversy, she found herself instead in the warm embrace of party loyalists. Warren is hoping the momentum will help reboot her campaign after weeks defending against the so-called Pocahontas story.
She's back on message and on offense, accusing Brown of siding with the big banks over the little guys.
ELIZABETH WARREN: We need a senator who will stand up for hardworking people, who won't sell out to Wall Street and who will fight for our future.
SMITH: Warren got a boost to that narrative yesterday with a front page story that while Brown boasts about his support for Wall Street reform, he was pushing behind the scenes to weaken the new law and give banks more wiggle room for risky behavior. Warren immediately pounced, thrilled to be firing questions about whether he's a real champion of the 99 percent rather than deflecting ones about whether she's a real Native American.
MICHAEL GOLDMAN: It may very well be that this is the turning point for the campaign, in terms of her getting out of this hole.
SMITH: Long time Democratic strategist Michael Goldman points to the recent polls showing Warren surviving the Native American flap well enough to remain neck and neck with Brown.
GOLDMAN: The convention was the cherry, but the chocolate sundae were the two polls that said, you know, really people just don't think it matters terribly.
ANDY SMITH: I think that's a little bit misleading because I wouldn't say there's anything to celebrate from this, other than saying it could have been a lot worse.
SMITH: Pollster Andy Smith says a well-funded Democratic candidate like Warren in Massachusetts should be way ahead, not stuck in a dead heat. And Smith says while most voters are unmoved by the controversy, nearly a third of the all-important independents say it has made them less likely to vote for Warren.
SMITH: It's not a big issue in the overall campaign. This isn't a knockout blow by any stretch of the imagination, but this is going to be such a close race, that a few percentage points can make the difference.
SMITH: And it's still very early in the campaign.
TOBY BERKOVITZ: The question is, is there another moccasin that's going to drop.
SMITH: Boston University professor Toby Berkovitz says it could be more revolutions about Warren's Native American claims or unrelated. But if Warren has so far escaped with only minor cuts and bruises, Berkovitz says, it's thanks largely to the people's pledge. That's the deal she struck with Brown to prevent outside groups from running negative ads against either one of them.
BERKOVITZ: If it wasn't for the people's pledge, we would be watching nothing but old black and white cowboy and Indian movies with all sorts of special effects. This would just be brutal.
SMITH: And so far, Brown himself has been reluctant to be that aggressive, instead fueling the story behind the scenes and egging on reporters while his on-air ads stick to the high road.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)
SENATOR SCOTT BROWN: The problem with Washington is the people down there are always battling. That's now how I operate. We're Americans first and I'll work with anyone to get things done.
SMITH: It could be argued that Brown should have capitalized even more on doubts about Warren's Native American status. While she's failed to make the story go away, he's failed to make it even more damaging. But Republican analyst Todd Domke says Brown is shrewdly biding his time, knowing the story isn't going away.
TODD DOMKE: It will come up in debates. It won't go away because the questions still haven't been answered. And finally, it won't go away just because people find it fascinating to talk about.
SMITH: For the past few days, both Brown and Warren have been trying to outdo each other by appearing most eager to start debating. While Warren wants to highlight policy differences and hammer Brown for siding with Wall Street, Brown can be expected to focus on character, subtly or not so subtly, keeping the Native American flap alive. Tovia Smith, NPR News.
AUDIE CORNISH HOST: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.