Warren betting that getting personal can help her rebound
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. – Elizabeth Warren still “has a plan” for everything. She’s just trying to put a more personal face on them.
Being a proud policy nerd helped catapult the Massachusetts senator into front-runner status last summer but may have carried her as far as it can. She has retooled the speech she gives voters at multiple daily campaign stops and has begun stressing that she’s been counted out of fights all her life -- only to find a way to prevail.
That's a strategy Warren is hoping to emulate enough to recover her footing in the Democratic presidential primary race.
“One of the things that I realize is that voters have a right to know not just the policies but also the heart of the person they’re going to pick as president of the United States,” she said after a packed event at a church in Portsmouth on Monday night. “So I put out all the polices. But I also put more of my heart out there for people.”
And while she's promoting her softer side publicly, her campaign is using hard-boiled political calculus to try to convince supporters that she can outlast many of her top rivals over the long haul.
Warren has begun telling crowds that, when she was in high school, her mother said she would never go to college — so she used her babysitting money to pay for applications and secured a debate scholarship. She describes beating incumbent Republican Sen. Scott Brown in 2012, despite once being down by nearly 20 points: “I got knocked on my fanny multiple times during that campaign. But you know what I did? I got up each and every time.”
And a new centerpiece of her speech features a February 2017 episode when Warren was on the Senate floor opposing Jeff Sessions’ nomination as attorney general and Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell evoked an obscure rule to stop her from speaking. Co-opting McConnell's words, Warren has summed up the experience under the slogan "Nevertheless, she persisted,” which often draws standing ovations.
Those changes likely came too late to help Warren in New Hampshire's primary Tuesday. But her campaign sees the struggles of former Vice President Joe Biden as opening up a wealth of new would-be supporters that she could scoop up in states like Nevada and South Carolina, which vote next on the Democratic presidential calendar.
Her team sees a winnowing field perhaps eventually setting up a fight between Warren and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who is pouring vast swaths of his fortune into the states that vote on Super Tuesday, March 3. Warren has called for a wealth tax on the nation’s rich, and her message of economic populism could give her a second campaign wind against someone like Bloomberg -- if she can make it that far.
A wild card could be Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who generated late-stage enthusiasm in New Hampshire. Still, Warren’s campaign is betting that staff infrastructure she’s already built in around 30 states means she can play a longer political game than Klobuchar, giving her a path to the nomination -- albeit one that is narrowing the longer she goes without winning a state.
Warren has largely refrained from criticizing her top rivals, but in a lengthy memo to supporters on Tuesday, her campaign manager, Roger Lau, laid out contrasts in a way his candidate hasn't. He argued that while others rise and fall, Warren will hold steady throughout a primary battle that is set to be long and protracted.
“The process won’t be decided by the simple horse race numbers in clickbait headlines,” Lau wrote in the memo. “That’s never been our focus — our focus is on building a broad coalition to win delegates everywhere.”
He said that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Warren's chief rival for progressive Democrats, “starts with a ceiling that's significantly lower than the support he had four years ago.” Lau also detailed how Biden entered the race as a front-runner but has seen his support dwindle among several key voting demographics and says Klobuchar “is playing catch up on a very short timeline" as she tries to match Warren's nationwide organization.
Lau suggested that Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, faces his “most significant challenge” in upcoming states that aren't as white as Iowa and New Hampshire. Last week's Iowa caucuses were too close to call, but Warren finished third, well behind Sanders and Buttigieg.
Top advisers point to Warren’s highlighting the Senate speech from 2017 as a new and important way to excite voters. The senator mentioned it after a largely forgettable performance in Friday night’s New Hampshire debate. It got such a good reaction that she said it on stage before an arena full of cheering Democrats at a state party dinner the next night. Now it’s the loudest applause line at her rallies.
Warren insists the race is still fluid, saying “the best evidence of that” is incorrect past predictions about who would be the strongest primary candidate to this point.
“Who was supposed to be in this race today, and who wasn’t? I think I wasn’t, and a lot of people who were supposed to have locked it up by this point are not here,” she said after a rally in Rochester, New Hampshire.
The senator also argues that she is the best candidate to unify the Democratic Party, a subtle shot at Sanders, who is calling for political revolutio n.
As part of what she see as the unification process, Warren has hired staffers who worked for Democratic White House candidates who left the race, and she's even begun spelling out how she’s incorporated their plans into her own: abortion rights proposals from California Sen. Kamala Harris, a paid family leave plan promoted by New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and calls for universal prekindergarten programs that former Obama administration housing chief Julián Castro championed.
“She’s trying to get the message out that that is part of her platform," said Beth Carta-Dolan, a restaurant owner who met Warren when she stopped at a cafe in Conway, in northern New Hampshire's breathtaking White Mountains. "So that the people who supported these other people are now being drawn in to understand that she represents them as well.”
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