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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Massachusetts, there's a high-stakes, high-profile U.S. Senate race that's already making history - in a way. Republican incumbent Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren have made an unprecedented pledge meant to try to curb the influence of superPACs and outside money in politics. And as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, it seems to be working so far.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: It was no big surprise in a race like this one that outside groups started running attack ads from the get-go.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Elizabeth Warren sides with extreme left protests.

SMITH: The airwaves were flooding with millions of dollars in ads from the conservative Crossroads GPS to left-leaning groups like the League of Conservation Voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Brown voted repeatedly against protecting our environment and public health.

SMITH: But in January, everything changed...

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Enough's enough.

SMITH: When the two candidates signed what they called the People's Pledge, agreeing that any candidate who benefits from a third-party ad would have to pay a penalty to charity. The deterrent worked. Outside groups ceased fire and the contest took a sharp turn from high noon to high horse.

SENATOR SCOTT BROWN: I'm proud to say we're serving as a model for the rest of the nation.

SMITH: Both Brown and Warren tried to score political points for their piety, both claiming credit for the agreement and vowing to respect it.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: ...the first violation of the People's Pledge...

SMITH: When the first offender popped up, benefitting Brown, Warren was indignant.

ELIZABETH WARREN: You know, I'm just disappointed. I'd been so hopeful.

SMITH: Brown's campaign accused Warren of, quote, "self-righteousness and moral superiority." But then, not to be outdone when it came to pay his fine he wrote a check for double.

TOBE BERKOVITZ: The tap dance is certainly who is squeakier cleaner. And they're both showing they're sort of model citizens.

SMITH: Boston University Professor Tobe Berkovitz says the People's Pledge has improved the tone of the race and of primetime TV, much to the relief of voters, like Martina Jackson of Newton.

MARTINA JACKSON: It is amazing. I mean, it's much, much better. It's relatively civilized, rather than just mud and whatever thrown at one other. I don't miss it. May I just go on record as saying I don't miss it.

SMITH: On the other hand, one can only imagine ad makers, lamenting lost opportunities, especially in a week like this one.

JEFFREY BERRY: If not for this agreement, we would be buried in mud.

SMITH: Tufts Professor Jeffrey Berry says ad makers would have had a field day with news that Brown, who's ardently opposed to President Obama's health care act, is also using it to get insurance for his adult daughter, and stories about Warren claiming to be a minority because of a great-great-great grandmother who she says was Native American.

BERRY: You can envision an ad of Elizabeth Warren in wigwam or wearing a wig, you know, what I mean, depending on how nasty that you wanted to be.

SMITH: But instead, since any such ads would have to come from the campaigns themselves, so far it's closer to a relatively minor dust-up than a full explosion, impressing even the early skeptics who doubted such a nuclear disarmament would ever stick. One local newspaper called it a near miracle. But to others, the miracle remains to be seen.

SCOTT HIBBARD: I don't think it's going to stick. In due time, there will be some negative ads.

SMITH: That's 41-year-old Scott Hibbard from Roxbury.

HIBBARD: It's way early. And once it starts sliding to one side or the other, the other one's going to have to do something. And that's when the mud starts to fly.

SMITH: Indeed, the cease-fire depends on outside groups' cooperation, and they are already restless on the sidelines. When the Coalition of Americans for Political Equality, for example, was asked to pull its ad in March, Chairman Jeff Loyd did so only reluctantly.

JEFF LOYD: We disagree with the purpose of the pledge because we wish to exercise our freedoms and legal right to support, you know, anybody we want.

TODD DOMKE: At some point they'll probably say forget the People's Pledge. We're people too. It's time to go to war.

SMITH: Republican strategist Todd Domke says it's simply too much to expect independent groups to sit on their hands while control of the Senate hangs in the balance.

DOMKE: I don't think I'm being cynical in saying it's just a matter of time before they decide to thrill their donors by launching attack ads that will make national news. They're not in this to be idealistic or to make Massachusetts a model for civility. They're in this to win and to be influential.

SMITH: As far as that model of civility, so far, the few attempts to follow Massachusetts' lead - for example in Montana and Virginia - have failed. Again, Tobe Berkovitz.

BERKOVITZ: It would be wonderful if this was the beginning of a trend. The skies would part. We'd hear wonderful, sweet music in all 50 states, but I don't have my hopes up.

SMITH: Brown and Warren may not have totally divorced outside money from politics but you might call it a trial separation that's making the rest of the family pretty happy not to have to listen to all that yelling - at least today. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

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