Consumer advocate and Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren has vaulted to the top of the field of Democratic candidates since entering the Massachusetts Senate race last month, and voters will get a glimpse of the substance behind her meteoric rise during Tuesday night's debate at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

Warren's campaign rollout garnered significant media attention, and a recent UMass Lowell-Boston Herald poll showed her far outpacing the other Democratic candidates and running in a virtual tie with incumbent senator Scott Brown, a Republican. That frontrunner status will likely make her the focus of tonight's debate.

Warren built her political reputation as the architect of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and a vocal critic of Wall Street abuses, and her campaign so far has focused on a populist message of defending the middle class.

I think she appears to be posturing herself towards that demographic, said Francis Talty, a professor of political science at UMass Lowell. So economic proposals, economic analysis that is targeted towards middle class audience is what I would anticipate at Tuesday's debate.

While Warren's message appears to have resonated with voters who are chiefly concerned with the economy, Tuesday night's debate could force her to prove her ability to articulate her views on a range of issues like education, immigration and health care. Democrats will be watching to see how she navigates topics that fall outsider her experience as a consumer advocate.

She is obviously a very smart woman, and she has the ability to at least have a fundamental knowledge of any issue that comes up, so I don't see that as problematic for her, said Tobe Berkovitz, an associate professor of communications at Boston University. In fact being a blank slate in terms of never having voted on this stuff is a huge advantage.

A large part of Warren's task will be justifying her surge in the polls to voters. Other candidates have complained about a bias towards her, reflected both in disproportionate media coverage and in her gaining an unusually early endorsement from Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass. While Warren might need to rebuff attempts to portray her as out of touch with Massachusetts voters -- City Year founder Alan Khazei has already labeled her a Washington insider -- Berkovitz said that her popularity could help to shield her.

She will be scrutinized, but in general most of the scrutiny starts with a favorable perception and spin, Berkovitz said. So I think most of the people who are reporting on this are favorably predisposed to her, so basically she's got a home field advantage.

Berkovitz dismissed the notion that the debate will be a major test for Warren, calling it a pattycakes environment that will not be televized, with questions coming from students. The true tests will come later, he said, when she is caught off guard by a voter's question or exposed to the unforgiving Boston press.

No one doubts she is a very intelligent person with clear and strong views, Berkovitz said. The question is what kind of candidate she is going to be, and that one is totally unproven.

Maurice Cunningham, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, said that the debate will afford Warren an early opportunity to hone her debating skills in a low-key evironment. But he echoed Berkovitz's view that the debate would be a minor event in a long campaign.

She's riding the crest of a media wave right now, Cunningham said. At some point that will slow down and we'll get into the real campaign.

You can contact the reporter at