LOWELL, Mass. — The six Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate spent much of their first debate zeroing in on the one candidate not on stage, Republican Sen. Scott Brown.
All six argued that they were their party's best hope to unseat the popular incumbent, who won a special election last year for the seat left vacant by the death of longtime Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Harvard law professor and consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren, the frontrunner in a recent poll, faulted Brown for cozying up to Wall Street. If elected, Warren said, her top goals would be lowering the national jobless rate and helping the middle class find a more solid economic footing.
"People should not be on unemployment," she said. "We should be putting them to work."
She also said the country shouldn't put future wars "on a credit card," referring to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"We should never go to war if we're not willing to pay for it now," she said. "It means either all of us go to war or none of us go to war."
The other Democratic candidates largely passed on any opportunity to confront Warren directly. A recent poll found Warren far ahead of the other candidates in a matchup with Brown.
Self-described "social justice advocate" Robert Massie, however, warned against what he called a "rush to judgment" among Democrats to support one candidate — presumably Warren, who just announced her candidacy and is largely untested on the campaign trail.
But even Massie saved his toughest critique for Brown, attributing his surprise win to an insurgent national conservative movement.
"Scott Brown raised $14 million in the last 18 days of his campaign because he was able to appeal to the tea party who wanted to slap Massachusetts in the face for 47 years of Teddy Kennedy," he said.
City Year co-founder Alan Khazei, who raised nearly $1 million during his first fundraising quarter, also went after the Republican incumbent, saying Brown has failed to live up to his early promise in the Senate.
"Scott Brown had an opportunity to be a game changer," Khazei said. "He's delivered nothing."
The debate also gave some of the lesser-known candidates a chance to make their case to Democratic primary voters.
Immigration attorney Marisa DeFranco said she can fight Brown in one of his strongholds in Essex County. She also said she's made a living battling for underdogs and would give Brown a run for his money.
"I know how to beat Scott Brown on his own turf," she said.
State Rep. Tom Conroy said he's the only candidate with a record of having defeated a popular GOP incumbent. Compared to him, Brown would come across as "nothing more than an empty suit," Conroy said.
"I'm the Democratic Party's best hope to defeat Scott Brown," said Conroy, D-Wayland.
Newton resident Herb Robinson tried to cast himself as the non-politician in the group. He was also the only candidate to say he would support full legalization of marijuana. Most of the other candidates said they could support some form of medical marijuana use.
Marijuana "should be legal and sold as alcohol," Robinson said.
All six said they agree that President Barack Obama has been too slow in getting the country out of Afghanistan and agreed that women should be allowed combat roles in the military. All said they opposed mandatory military service.
Asked if they had ever been cited for drunken driving, all six said no.
All the candidates said they paid for their education through a mix of student loans, jobs and financial from their parents.
"I kept my clothes on," said Warren, a joking reference to Brown's decision while in law school to pose nude for Cosmopolitan magazine in a photo spread with a strategically placed crease in the magazine.
All the Democratic candidates also said they believe Congress needs to pass comprehensive immigration policy and would support offering in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrant students living in Massachusetts.
The Democratic candidates also said they support Obama's jobs bill, although several said the bill was not aggressive enough.
Asked what superhero they would want to be, Conroy said Captain America, DeFranco said one of the Wonder Twins, Khazei said the Flash, Robinson said the Incredible Hulk, Massie said Superman and Warren said Wonder Woman, citing her "cool outfit."
A recent UMass Lowell-Boston Herald poll showed Brown getting 41 percent of the vote and Warren receiving 38 percent, within the poll's margin of error.
Warren also was the strong favorite of the six Democratic candidates when pollsters surveyed potential Democratic primary voters. She garnered 36 percent of the vote while none of the other five got more than 5 percent.
The poll surveyed 1,005 registered voters in Massachusetts by landline and cellphone from Sept. 22-28. The margin of error was 3.8 percentage points, higher for smaller samples such as potential Democratic primary voters.
Brown has tried to cast himself as an independent voice beholden to neither major political party.
"I'm going to continue to do my job and work on the very important things that people care about and that's jobs, job creation," he told reporters Monday.