VINTON, Iowa — Elizabeth Warren motors onstage at her campaign events like she is being chased: arm-pump, arm-pump, mid-jog wave. O.K.! Let’s get this thing going.
She rockets through the plan-a-minute portion of her stump speech with a winking plea for indulgence: “Just one more, just one more,” she promises, as if bargaining with an award-show orchestra trying to play her off before her subprime mortgage riff.
Then comes that crucial moment of a Warren gathering, when the power dynamic shifts from the stage to the crowd. Someone has a question. Ms. Warren has staked her 2020 candidacy on having the answers. And from her opening syllables — “O.K.!”, “Alrighty!”, “So!” — she takes care to project a problem-solving itch so irrepressible that only comic-book punctuation will suffice.
“Whoooaaaaa!” Ms. Warren said on a recent Saturday in Vinton, joined by 150 people inside a high school atrium.
A woman, Jan Bingham, 64, had just asked about the thorny subject of “electability,” at once a trope long used to diminish female candidates and a source of near-constant anxiety among Warren supporters.
“It has been said that Elizabeth Warren has a plan for everything,” Ms. Bingham said, “except how to beat Donald Trump.”
“All right!” Ms. Warren replied, over audience grumbles. She plowed through a familiar bit about turning back bullies, about knowing what’s broken and knowing how to fix it. Polite applause followed.
Ms. Bingham sat down. “I guess I wanted a few more specifics,” she said.
With less than three months before the voting begins, Ms. Warren has, in some ways, already completed the knottiest leg of her would-be path to the Democratic presidential nomination. Saddled early on by halting fund-raising totals, middling poll numbers and a running flap over claims of Native American ancestry, she managed to elevate herself above the primary morass behind a fire hose of policy plans and the canny celebri-fication of a septuagenarian bankruptcy expert who campaigns in sneakers and cardigans, smiling into any cellphone camera pointed at her until the photo line is bare.
Now it gets harder. After nearly a year of slowly, and then not so slowly, rising to the top of the pack, Ms. Warren is facing her first period of apparent plateau — her momentum stalled, according to polls and dozens of voter interviews, amid nagging doubts like Ms. Bingham’s and the predictable price of success: even more scrutiny.
Rank-and-file Democrats have raised concerns about the viability of her Medicare for all proposal. They smirk at some well-placed trolling — a “Billionaire Tears” coffee mug quickly became a campaign best seller — but worry about the blowback that some of her soak-the-rich platform has inspired. An unmemorable debate performance Wednesday night in Atlanta seems unlikely to advance Ms. Warren’s cause much.
In recent weeks, two prospective rivals, former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York and former Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, appeared so unimpressed with the strength of the Democratic candidates as Ms. Warren climbed that a historically large primary field has begun growing again. Supporters are wary of the toll on Ms. Warren as more moderate peers like former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., escalate their attacks.
And though Ms. Warren turns often to the language of political combat — the word “fight,” or some variation, appears three times combined in the titles of her last two books — she has rarely hit back at her leading competitors with much force.
“I’m not here to criticize other Democrats,” she told reporters, at least twice, after filing for the New Hampshire primary at the state house in Concord last week. She spoke instead about being the daughter of a janitor.
Counteracting these headwinds, admirers say, is nearly a year’s worth of evidence that Ms. Warren is doing something different and durable, that the sum total of the plans and the persistence and the 85,000 photos with fans is a campaign built to withstand semi-lulls like this.
The question may be simple in the end, as it has been for the last two presidents — and the many talented and formidable opponents whom they bested:
Is Ms. Warren a phenomenon? A candidate magnetic enough to make believers out of even those typically disinclined to bother with democracy? Or is she merely another skilled candidate in a flawed field?
“I want to believe,” said Carrie Mirfield, a 47-year-old massage therapist, before an event in Davenport. “I’m not sure if I do yet.”
Of course, the trouble with phenomenon-candidacies is that you don’t know until you know. Did it feel preordained with Barack Obama in November 2007? With Donald Trump eight years later? Clearly something was happening. But could anyone be sure how it might scale?
Ms. Warren plainly has a gift for making her charges feel like part of a grander mission, for connecting her story to their own.
Allies have long believed that if voters could see her as Betsy from Oklahoma, and not Liz from Harvard, she would have a fighting chance. She prefers “teacher” to “professor” — and rarely uses the H-word — reminding crowds of her penchant for instructing and grading her childhood “dollies.” “I had a reputation for being tough but fair,” she says, every time.
Her stump speech is specked with a kind of knowing prairie humor: how she was referred to only as “the surprise” after her birth; how only one of her three older brothers is a Democrat (“do the math”); how her first husband came to be called “H-1” after the fact.
“Hint,” she likes to say. “It is never a good sign when you have to number your husbands.”
The room falls quietest as she tells the tale of her childhood finances in Oklahoma: her father’s heart attack, losing the family station wagon, her mother — 50 years old, without work experience outside the home — pulling on a black dress to interview for a job answering phones at Sears. Ms. Mirfield, the skeptical voter in Davenport, said after the event that the Sears story had steeled her to support Ms. Warren after all.
Her team likewise tends toward true believers, dressed in “liberty green” campaign gear and liable to slip phrases like “structural change” and “in this fight” into casual conversation. Even those closest to Ms. Warren appear skittish about going off-script. After attending an event of hers in Muscatine, Iowa — where the candidate talked about her dollies and the Koch brothers and made it all cohere — Ms. Warren’s son, Alex, fell into conversation with a voter. “This is genuinely who she is,” he said. “This is how she sounds.” Approached the next morning by a reporter, he offered similarly generic praise for his mother before insisting his remarks were off the record.
While some other campaigns have empowered aides to speak frequently on cable news about their candidate, Ms. Warren’s operation almost never dispatches a staff member to represent her on television. The closest approximation during her Iowa swing may have been a “Saturday Night Live” impression, airing above a bar in Dubuque where aides had gathered after her last event of the day, lampooning the costs of Ms. Warren’s plans.
“All we gotta do is convince JP Morgan to operate like a nonprofit,” Kate McKinnon’s Ms. Warren said, adding, “When the numbers are this big, they’re just pretend.”
Such gentle yuks are a small tax to pay for the mainstream relevance that Ms. Warren has earned. She seems to have grasped some superficial lessons from the last two presidents: As the first White House victors of the smartphone era, Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump each succeeded as a kind of lifestyle brand, their campaigns experienced in viral video snippets and projected across social media by supporters eager to share pictures of themselves, and their candidate, and themselves with their candidate.
Voters know the name of Ms. Warren’s golden retriever (Bailey). They chant the tagline of her wealth tax proposal (“two cents!”) as if they are requesting a song at a concert. They shell out money for campaign merchandise, like a “Purr-sist” cat collar, and less official wares like a skull-centric “EAT THE RICH” T-shirt sold outside her events by an unaffiliated vendor.
“No other candidate has ever done this,” Wade Snowden, 23, said of the photo line, as he waited his turn in Vinton. That this is untrue — candidates have done post-event photos with all comers for years — can feel almost irrelevant.
“I was there when she was polling at 6 percent, and it was like, ‘Oh, it’s so cute you’re running,’” said Mr. Snowden, whose T-shirt captured a screenshot of Ms. Warren’s facial expression from an old video stream as she read a message from him. “Now she’s, like, the front-runner.”
Some veterans of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign have been impressed with Ms. Warren’s ability to play to her advantages, making white-paper gravitas look hipper, somehow, than Mrs. Clinton ever seemed to.
“Her campaign is doing something that she is an extremely unlikely heroine for, which is creating a celebrity around her,” said Jess Morales Rocketto, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Mrs. Clinton, comparing the effort to the popular legends constructed around Mr. Obama or Bernie Sanders.
Ms. Morales Rocketto suggested that the combination of Ms. Warren’s plans and her social media ubiquity — tormenting billionaires, surprising small-dollar donors with phone calls — had established “a very important permission structure to say ‘I can support her’ and — and this is crucial in 2019 — ‘it is cool to support her.’”
Other data points are more cautionary. Ms. Warren’s crowd sizes can register as more respectable than staggering, not bad for a cold-weather spell months before the voting starts but hardly imposing in a field with several candidates, from Mr. Sanders and Mr. Buttigieg to the former tech executive Andrew Yang, who can reliably fill event halls themselves.
In polls, Ms. Warren still struggles with nonwhite voters and those without college degrees. On the trail, where the most engaged voters often sound and behave like pundits, she has drawn skepticism from a peculiar class of Democrat: the progressive who fears others are not so progressive.
“If she isn’t willing to moderate some of her views, I don’t think she can beat Trump,” said Jim Butler, 73, a retired teacher from Dubuque wearing a “Nevertheless, She Persisted” shirt. “She scares some people. Doesn’t scare me, I’m as progressive as she is. But I’m not sure she can change people’s views as fast as she needs to change them.”
Ms. Warren’s standard remarks now seem to anticipate this argument. “It’s easy to give up on big ideas,” she said at an outdoor rally in Concord last week, her breath visible after certain punctuated syllables on a 25-degree afternoon. “It’s easy to sound so sophisticated when you do.”
But if you abandon your big ideas, she suggested, what have you won if you win?
Hours later, at a forum for union members a short walk away, Ms. Warren put it like this: “I’m not running for president so I get to try on the outfit.”
It was the question-and-answer portion, and hands were shooting up inside a hotel conference room. A woman stood to ask about Medicare for all, sounding anxious about Ms. Warren’s proposal. The candidate nodded.
“Good!” she began. “So, I appreciate the question.”
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