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Will Akin and Ryan Save Elizabeth Warren?

When I was in Massachusetts recently reporting on Elizabeth Warren’s struggles to unseat Scott Brown, I heard a common lament from several members of the state’s Democratic old guard: Warren needed to do a better job of nationalizing the choice facing voters. That is, she had to remind the voters who were leaning toward voting for both Barack Obama and Scott Brown—the decisive swing vote in Massachusetts—that even if they liked Brown and viewed him as relatively independent-minded, he was still a Republican and his holding his seat might well put the Republicans into the Senate majority. No matter how often he bucks his party, said Larry DiCara, a former Democratic president of the Boston City Council, “He’ll cast one bad vote, and that’s to make Mitch McConnell head of the Senate.” DiCara proceeded to rattle off the other consequences of a GOP majority—such as James Inhofe regaining the chairmanship of the environment committee.

But others worried that it would be hard for Warren to get this message through to voters. “For a lot of these people, it’s ‘who the fuck’s McConnell?’” said Tom Birmingham, the former president of the state Senate. “They don’t know what you’re talking about.”

It would seem, though, that Warren’s job in this regard has gotten easier in the past two weeks. First, Mitt Romney picked as his running mate a member of the same Congress in which Brown is serving, a man whose draconian budget plans are presumably not appealing to at least some of the Massachusetts swing voters who are now leaning toward both Obama and Brown. Second, Republicans nationwide are now burdened with Todd Akin, whose curious notions of reproductive science and women’s rights are, we can be pretty sure, not a big hit in Natick and Scituate. Brown is of course doing his best to limit his association with both Ryan and Akin—he points out often that he voted against Ryan’s budget (a meaningless vote that his party elders freely allowed him to take) and he was among the first Republicans to condemn Akin’s comments. In that sense, one could argue that these two figures simply offer another foil for Brown—yes, I’m a Republican, but not like those guys. (Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council just assisted in this regard by calling Brown “off the reservation” for his condemnation of Akin; Boston Globe reporter Noah Bierman joked that Brown will be sending Perkins a “box of chocolates” in thanks.)

But Warren can’t allow him to get away with this—she needs to drill into voters’ minds that even if Scott Brown is not Todd Akin, his holding this seat would put the party of Akin—and men not so unlike him, such as Indiana’s Richard Mourdock—into the Senate majority.  Can she pull it off? Dave Weigel was with Warren after the Ryan selection, but before the Akin explosion, and reported back that she seemed to be doing a better job of framing the choice as larger than Scott Brown:

Warren’s speech in Dorchester was short, all contrast-building with the Ryan plan. “I’ll tell you,” she said, “I never thought I would run for office, but when there’s a vision like that—and it’s put forward as the serious vision of the Republican party—then it’s time for all of us to get involved in this race.”

But a day after his piece appeared, a new PPP poll came out showing Brown up by five points. Then again, that was before the Akin storm had blown in from Missouri.  Warren is, as my piece made plain, a first-time candidate who is still learning how to deliver a message with the necessary deftness and touch. But she also has piles of money left to spend; surely, she should be able to use much of it to yoke Scott Brown firmly to his fellow sharp-chinned Republicans, Ryan and Akin. To put it in the terms of Warren’s academic background, this is Politics 101.

*Update, 1:30 p.m. Well, Warren must be hitting the Akin note, because she's already provoked outrage for it in the conservative Boston Herald. Columnist Michael Graham:

Of course Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and Scott Brown denounced Akin’s idiocy. There is no “legitimate rape” caucus anywhere in American politics.
“Scott Brown and other Republicans want to pretend Todd Akin is an isolated individual, but he is clearly in line with the Republican agenda,” Warren said in a statement.
And what, according to Warren, is that agenda?
“To limit access to health care. . . to select a vice presidential nominee someone who co-sponsored legislation with Rep. Akin to ‘redefine rape,’ ” Warren says.
Got that, ladies? Forget Brown’s record, forget his denunciation of this Akin dope, forget how he’s actually lived his entire life: Scott Brown hates women! He’s soft on rape! Run before he molests you himself!

I hate to break it to Graham, but there actually is a "legitimate rape" caucus in American politics. Some 150 House Republicans, including Paul Ryan, last year supported revising the rape exception for the ban on federal funding for abortions, to narrow it to excepting only "forcible rape." Akin himself has made clear that he meant "forcible" when he said "legitimate." There's been a lot written on this subject. Here's just one for Graham's edification, from the other newspaper in his town.

**Update, 11 p.m. I finally got around to reading Kit Seelye's New York Times piece today about Brown trying to distance himself from Romney, Ryan, et al, and it included this:

Democrats in Massachusetts were thrilled with the selection of Mr. Ryan, whose conservative fiscal and social views are out of sync with New England Republicanism, and Ms. Warren is determined to pin him on Mr. Brown.

She refers constantly these days to the “Romney-Ryan-Brown” ticket and to the stringent “Ryan-Brown-Romney” budget plan.

And this evening I heard a clip of a very tough new Warren radio ad invoking Akin that included this line: "But it's not just one extreme Republican candidate in Missouri. It's part of a Republican pattern. Just imagine if Republicans were in the White House or gained control of the U.S. Senate..."

Yes, so far it seems that the Warren team if well aware of the chance it's been offered.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis