Elizabeth Warren: Stumped

She was supposed to be the Great Liberal Hope, the one Democrat tough enough to evict Scott Brown from Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. Then Warren started campaigning.

In July, Warren and I meet for lunch at the Tavern in the Square pub in Porter Square.

I’ve been promised just 20 minutes today, but even that took weeks of back-and-forth. Warren’s staff has continued to limit press access, and she’s been providing the media only brief sound bites in the wake of her ancestry controversy. However that may play into her campaign strategy, the fact is that the Warren supporters I’ve spoken to lately have been expressing frustration that their candidate lacks the aggressive edge they’ve expected. “I want Elizabeth Warren to win, of course I do,” says Margie Cohen, an independent who attended a South End ice cream social. “But I want her to shape up her campaign.”

Warren arrives to the lunch in a raspberry sweater and sporty reflective sunglasses, with a black backpack slung on her shoulders. She’s gracious and warm, quick with a story and a folksy aphorism, but she sticks to her talking points. So I ask about her likability problem. “‘I don’t know’ is the answer partly,” she responds. “For that you’ll probably need a political pundit.” Has she detected any kind of enthusiasm gap when it comes to her supporters? “You’re the first person to say that there’s an enthusiasm gap at all,” she says. “People tell me everywhere I go why they care that I got in this race. I can’t answer the question because I literally haven’t experienced what you’re talking about.”

There is a moment in Confidence Men, Ron Suskind’s bestseller about the financial crisis, when he describes Warren talking with the president while he’s still on the campaign trail. Obama tells her that the campaign is a “bubble.” Suskind writes that, “Elizabeth Warren would think about the man-in-a-bubble conversation all the way back to Cambridge and many times since.” And you have to wonder whether she’s thinking about it now.

Ferson, the Democratic strategist, has seen the bubble before. It’s typically what you’re dealing with “if you say to someone, ‘You’ve got a real problem,’ and the candidate says, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ If you spend your day talking to the faithful who just love you, that’s not an accurate picture of what’s going on out there.”

Then again, Warren’s likability numbers have been on the rise. And she and Brown have a series of debates still to come. And she’ll be sharing the podium with former President Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention. And perhaps all that will give her the edge she needs to win. That and the political calculation that if candidate Elizabeth Warren can hold her mouth in a clenched smile through November, she’ll be able to pull on her gloves and go back to knocking out teeth.


Read about Elizabeth Warren’s opponent, Scott Brown.