Elizabeth Warren sounds like she's in the center of a national campaign as she fires up a crowd of more than 500 Democratic loyalists in an Iowa City ballroom.
She starts with her biography–just like she always did two years ago while running for Senate in Massachusetts. Her parents got by on minimum wage. Her three brothers all served in the military. Her 30-minute speech at the University of Iowa is more than half over before she turns to the reason that she's in the state: Democratic Representative Bruce Braley and his tight Senate contest against Republican Joni Ernst. "What the Republicans are really fighting for is a world in which there is less and less investment in your future," she says. "We can whine about it or we can fight back and Bruce Braley …"
Her endorsement is drowned by the crowd, in part by the chant: "Run, Liz, Run." After 25 seconds of clapping, she tries again.
"I wanted to be here today because Bruce Braley is fighting back!"
The moment captures the paradox of Elizabeth Warren.
She has said she's not running for president and disavowed a super-PAC formed to push her candidacy. And yet the former Harvard Law School professor is traveling a path familiar to presidential candidates, drawing crowds that would make some potential Democratic rivals jealous. With one week's notice, hundreds of supporters shouldered their way into her Iowa events. Once again, a first-term senator who doesn't look like the typical U.S. president is basking in the adulation of a eager Democratic crowd.
"I just love her," gushed Carol Olicker, 69, of Fairfield, Iowa. "I feel like Obama was such a disappointment. It is so nice to believe in someone again."
In just the past 72 hours, Warren has headlined rallies for Democrats in Colorado and Minnesota, in addition to Iowa. This year, she's campaigned in 15 states, including Ohio, New Mexico, Kentucky, Oregon, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan and her home state of Massachusetts. That makes her one of the most-requested campaign surrogates this year, said Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "She's incredibly popular," he said.
She's also opening her campaign wallet, giving money from her political action committee, PAC For a Level Playing Field, to 26 of the 36 Democrats running for the Senate this year, including the maximum $10,000 donation to 19 of them. Her PAC ranks as the fifth most generous to Democratic candidates among senators, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Her political operation churns out a steady stream of fundraising emails–one says she has raised $6 million for candidates this cycle.
Why all the work if she has no ambitions for the White House?
The explanation, according to people who have followed her closely, is that she's not building a presidential campaign. She's following Obama's lead, with a slight twist, by trying to build a movement that could redefine the party and later lead to a future White House candidacy.
"It's the grassroots organization that Obama had but didn't maintain," said Boston-based Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. "If the Democrats can keep the Senate, she now has a lot more influence as a two-year, one-term U.S. senator than many other senators who have been there much longer."
Marsh points to Warren's history: She arrived on the national stage at a Harvard professor advocating for a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau amid the worst financial collapse since the Great Depression. When Senate Republicans blocked her hopes of leading it, she ran for the Senate and inserted herself in their ranks. In the chamber, Warren's seen those same Republicans block her legislation to allow lower interest rates on student loans, and she's decided to spend her time–and pull with voters–campaigning for her Democratic colleagues, which could build or preserve the vote-count for her legislation in the next Congress. "Success is the best revenge," Marsh said.
Warren's broader message for overhauling the way Washington works hasn't changed much since her 2012 campaign to unseat Republican Senator Scott Brown. "This is not only an election," she told a group of supporters back then. "We've got to make the wind blow in the right direction." There's some evidence the movement-building is working—even in "deep maroon" South Dakota, where Democratic candidate Rick Weiland has campaigned on Warren's efforts to reduce interest rates on student loans.
There is also a practical reason why she's not running for president: she's got some stiff competition.
Several Warren supporters in the Iowa crowds, including those clasping "Warren for President" signs, admitted they weren't ready to pick Warren over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "We don't get everything we want," said Chris Weinard, 55, who wore a "Run, Liz, Run" T-shirt but wants to see Clinton clinch the nomination. "It's the electability," he said. "We can't lose. We can't go back. With Bill and Hillary, they will do good."
Polls show Warren is far from Iowa's top pick for the White House. Just over half of Democratic likely caucusgoers picked Clinton as their presidential favorite while Warren garnered just 10 percent of their support, in a recent Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll.
Still, Warren does appeal to the Democratic base, which is why Braley is campaigning with her. Sixty-three percent of self-identified liberals said they have a favorable opinion of her in the recent poll. Her support comes from an older, better educated slice of the electorate even though her message on income inequality is generally aimed at poorer audiences as is her push to reduce interest rates for student loans is aimed at younger ones. Her message about protecting the middle class is one that Braley embraced.
Speaking before Warren, Braley sought to connect with voters by highlighting his own family's financial troubles. He held aloft the tan work boots he wore in his mid-20s after graduating from law school and doing manual labor to help keep the family afloat after his father's death. "These boots are a reminder to me that life is unpredictable," he said, "and that working people get up every day and make our lives better without expecting anything in return except a chance to live the American dream."
Warren implored supporters to vote for him and get their friends and family to the polls, which are already open here. When she stopped speaking, her fans crowded around her, standing five-deep along a rope line. Some passed up copies of "A Fighting Chance," the book she published earlier this year, hoping for signatures. Those who pushed to the front managed to pose with her for selfies.
There can be a downside to bringing in a liberal firebrand in the final days of a campaign–particularly since Braley has been trying to appeal to centrists. "I’m sure Republicans will happily point out how liberal Warren is with hopes it will turn off the moderates," predicted Timothy Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.
That's exactly what they did. "Senator Warren said that she and Congressman Braley share the same liberal values," said Republican Party of Iowa spokesman Jahan Wilcox in a statement. He noted that Warren didn't support farm subsidies. “Warren is a partisan fighter who wants to cut funding for Iowa's agriculture industry, which begs the question: Why is Congressman Braley appearing with her?” he said.
Braley's campaign stressed the work she's done that polls well here. "Senator Warren knows that Bruce fights for an economy that works for all Iowans, not just the wealthiest few," said Sam Lau, a Braley spokesman.
When Warren finished in Iowa City, she and Braley rushed to their next event, another rally 120 miles west to Des Moines. They drove two hours through golden brown cornfields and arrived in another ballroom jammed with pro-Warren activists. "I am so glad to be here today," she began. What came next—about her parents, her brothers—was not going to make news to the reporters following her for the past couple of years. But it just might make a movement.