By Bill Weissert
CARSON CITY — When Elizabeth Warren campaigned in Nevada in February, Abbie Peters was there. Energy and enthusiasm for the Massachusetts senator was not.
“It was early, and she wasn’t as popular,” said Peters.
Nearly eight months later, Peters, a retiree from California, was back again to see Warren. The message hadn’t changed. But she felt like she was watching a different messenger. The crowd swelled with enthusiastic supporters, and Warren’s status near the top of the Democratic presidential field was affirmed.
“She gave pretty much the same speech, but it’s a good one and it’s authentic,” Peters said.
Still, Warren is quickly finding that her rapid ascent is accompanied by heightened scrutiny and criticism, from President Donald Trump and her Democratic opponents. Her political allies and foes alike say Warren has appropriately sharp elbows and isn’t afraid to throw them — something she’ll likely increasingly have to do during the Democratic primary and in Twitter combat with Trump.
The latest examples came this week, when Warren was forced to defend a critical portion of the biographical story she tells on the campaign trail and a top Democratic challenger said that her health care plan would potentially alienate half the nation’s population.
With less than four months until the first votes in the Democratic nominating process are cast, Warren can anticipate that those criticisms will sharpen and accelerate.
“It’s a new phase for her, but if you’re the front-runner, all that means is everybody’s behind you and they want to be in front of you,” said Bill Miller, a longtime Texas political strategist who has worked for Republicans and Democrats. “You get their best shots, and you get the most shots.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden, Warren’s chief competitor atop the primary polls, has seized on Warren’s support for “Medicare for All” universal health insurance, noting that she “has not indicated how she pays for it.”
So has Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who notes that the plan would eliminate choice for Americans who might prefer to stick with private insurance plans.
“I’m also committed to the idea that we can be bold and unified,” Buttigieg told The Associated Press. “But I also think that boldness doesn’t require jamming half of the American people.”
Buttigieg unveiled a prescription drug cost reduction proposal in a Monday op-ed in The Boston Globe, Warren’s hometown newspaper. He said voters should expect him to continue to make the contrast, likely at an influential union forum coming up in Iowa on Sunday, as well as at next week’s Democratic debate in Ohio.
“I’ve got a job to do to make sure that people understand the differences,” Buttigieg said.
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, meanwhile, questioned the legality of Warren’s signature wealth tax, which she’s planning to use to help pay for many of her most ambitious proposals if elected, including Medicare for All and expanded Social Security benefits.
“She’s talked about the wealth tax, but that’s been assigned so many different possible things and it’s not clear that it’s constitutional,” Bennet said in an interview Tuesday.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is competing with Warren for the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party and has refused to go after Warren, but some of his highest-profile supporters have. Actress Susan Sarandon noted that her candidate was “not someone who used to be a Republican,” reminding some of Warren only becoming a Democrat in 1996, when she was in her 40s.
Republicans have willingly joined in.
Warren’s taking a DNA test last year to show Native American ancestry backfired — while it showed distant tribal ancestry, it also sparked a rebuke of Warren from some Native Americans for attributing tribal membership to genetics. The controversy nearly derailed her campaign before it got started, and she apologized for her past claims. Trump had derided her with the ethnic slur “Pocahontas” during his 2016 campaign and continues to do so.
On Tuesday, Warren stood by her account of being fired from a New Jersey teaching position five decades ago because she was pregnant. She was put on the defensive after a 2007 video surfaced — and was widely shared in conservative circles — in which she seemed to describe the change in her career more as a choice and without the claim that her pregnancy led to the loss of her job.
Others note that the “Two Income Trap,” the 2004 book Warren wrote with her daughter, argued in favor of allowing parents more freedom to choose the public schools they send their children to rather than being limited to their neighborhood, saying families overreaching to move into more expensive ZIP codes was a key driver for the insurmountable debt many took on. That’s a different kind of “school choice” than the voucher programs that use public funding for private and religious schools cheered by many conservatives — but is a distinction some may miss.
A national audience got a glimpse of Warren’s fighting skills during the Democratic debate in July. After former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland spent much of the evening criticizing Warren and Sanders about using “fairytale economics,” Warren shot back: “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do.”
There were also flashes while Warren was running for the Senate in 2012 against Republican incumbent Sen. Scott Brown, who two years earlier won a seat controlled for decades by Ted Kennedy.
Warren had just been denied a job running the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She was packing up her apartment in Washington when Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, stopped by and spoke to her for hours about running for office. Schriock recalled at the time that, for any Democrat challenging Brown, “this was not going to be a simple slam dunk.”
“I know folks now look back and go, ‘Massachusetts was an easy race.’ That was not the case in the moment, in that environment,” said Schriock. “We were dealing with the situation where we’d just lost Kennedy’s seat. Scott Brown was this attractive, charismatic Republican senator. Mitt Romney is getting ready to run for president.”
Brown tried to paint his opponent as an elitist from Harvard, calling her “Professor Warren” and arguing that she saw the Senate as a consolation prize.
“We knew that, running as a Republican in a state as blue as Massachusetts, you have to not only make voters like your candidate, you have to give them active reason to dislike your opponent,” said Colin Reed, who was Brown’s campaign spokesman. “It was a hard-fought race.”
Warren ultimately won by 7-plus percentage points.
Jeremy Hasson, a 26-year-old high school career counselor in New York, said Warren’s steady climb from also-ran to formability may leave her in a better position to fend off criticism.
“She’s so good at addressing root causes and not feeding into people’s traps,” said Hasson, who attended a Warren rally last month in Washington Square Park. “Even if she’s in the lead, she still has an underdog message where she can say, ‘I was behind once and I got here.’”