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Elizabeth Warren Hits Her Stride

Nerdy charm and a sharp new line of attack. She's a far better candidate than she was a few months ago — but that may not be enough.

Posted on August 22, 2012, at 12:01 p.m. ET

BOSTON, Mass. — Elizabeth Warren was a champion debater as a teen in Oklahoma, and as a Cambridge grandmother and Senate candidate decades later, a bit of that nerdy charm remains.

“I want to make one promise,” she told a crowd of volunteers at a “Women for Warren” office in Southbridge, Mass. “I am not getting out of here without shaking anybody’s hand who wants to shake hands, anybody who wants to do a picture, so that we can Facebook, or, uh, however you want to do this as we go forward.”

Warren had on a crisp blouse and blue pants. Her signature rimless glasses sat perched on the tip of her nose. She shook everyone in the room’s hands and took pictures with the mostly female, mostly middle-aged crowd in the very hot and stuffy office.

Warren, the liberal champion who helped design President Barack Obama’s financial regulatory reform agenda, has finally hit her stride as a campaigner. She will never, it is clear, have her opponent Scott Brown’s raw political gifts. But she has also loosened up, settled more comfortably into her own skin than she had been in the rocky, prickly early months of the campaign.

Warren’s quirky appeal — a dorky professor who’s also a gloves-off liberal attack dog — became more apparent on the trail last week. The chilly and unapproachable Warren of a few months ago looked to have been replaced by a more focused and friendly candidate, one who’s found an attack that could work: with the addition of Paul Ryan to the Republican ticket, she’s found the perfect foil and stand-in for everything she’s campaigning against.

And perhaps more important in a state that defaults Democrat, she has come to grips with the fact that her core task is to define her opponent.

Warren’s mission is to make voters see Scott Brown as just another conservative Republican.

“My Republican opponent doesn’t want to talk about the issues, a lot of Republicans don’t want to talk about the issues,” she told BuzzFeed in an interview outside the Southbridge event. “Because if they talk about the issues they have to face some very uncomfortable truths.”

It hasn’t been an easy race for Warren, who many Massachusetts Democrats assumed would defeat Brown handily. He’s proven a tougher and more nimble figure than some expected, with a regular-guy charm and a gift for picking the right moment to break with Republican orthodoxy. Warren’s campaign struggled for six weeks to put the story of her questionable Native American heritage to bed. A poll out on Tuesday from Public Policy Polling put Brown five points ahead.

Warren is an explainer. She’s at her most comfortable is explaining, say, income inequality to voters in Dorchester, or elaborating on the question of infrastructure in front of a construction crane in Quincy.

That explaining habit of hers has made her seem like a wet blanket, much of the time. While Scott Brown will drive a reporter around in his truck, drink beer, and know stuff about the Red Sox, Warren has been viewed as overly high-minded, even stiff. The long-running assumption is that Brown easily outdoes Warren when it comes to glad-handing voters on the trail.

Thus far, that’s been the case. But spending time on the trail with Warren last week showed there’s a wrinkle in the narrative that she’s cold and unapproachable. And voters BuzzFeed spoke with seemed remarkably attached to Warren not just for her ideas, but for her “compassion” and “warmth.”

In Southbridge, located in Worcester County and nicknamed “The Eye of the Commonwealth” for its history of producing optical products, a middle-aged electrician named Cathy Carlson waited for Warren outside the field office. She wore a campaign sticker on her shirt and talked, like New Englanders love to do, about the traffic on the Mass Pike.

She explained her affinity for Warren thus: “I always tell people, I like people and I’m liberal. So I’m a Democrat.”

As for Brown, “He’s very personable but he’s a Republican — he doesn’t help people.” (Carlson doubted that he actually rides around in his truck: “I’ve never seen him in a pickup truck except for that one ad.”)

Carlson said she thinks Warren’s problem isn’t coolness, but just shyness: “I don’t think she’s comfortable in crowds.”

As Warren’s car pulled up, someone in the small crowd of people waiting for her remarked: “I like that, no limousines, no fancy vehicles.”

Warren launched into her stump speech, which had just been tweaked that afternoon at the annual clambake thrown by Springfield’s Sheriff Ashe.

“The Sheriff taught me there are just two things you have to learn: be short and he said always ask for their vote,” Warren said. “So I’m going to start out and say will y’all please vote for me?”

The line seemed to work, at least as a break from her usual approach of explaining to voters what she’s campaigning on — a blend of talking points about income inequality, infrastructure, taxes, and now with the addition of Paul Ryan to the Republican presidential ticket, Medicare and Social Security — and then expecting their votes to naturally fall into her corner.

On the topic of Paul Ryan, his ascension as Romney’s running mate seemed to energize Warren’s campaign on the ground, gifting her with the ability to cast Brown as a Ryan acolyte. Brown actually opposed the Ryan budget, a fact that Warren gets around by saying that Brown wants Romney and Ryan to be president and vice-president, so he must support the budget.

Later, Warren told BuzzFeed that the Ryan choice meant that for Republicans, “boy, there’s no backing off now.” She nearly snorted with glee as she said it.

“For me, it’s all out there now,” she said. “The pieces are clear and the American people are going to have a chance to see it. There’s not going to be a big misunderstanding about what the Republicans stand for. There’s a real difference between the Republicans and the Democrats in this country.”

The last line is telling to Warren’s approach. She goes straight to the heart of what voters like Carlson, liberal Democrats above all else, care about: defeating Republicans. She does not seem to care about “reaching across the aisle” or any of the other clichés that politicians use to mollify people worried about partisan gridlock; I asked her how she would relate to the sizable caucus of Tea Party senators, and she said “I will work with anyone” but didn’t really elaborate.

Warren’s ace in the hole is the specter of a Republican majority in the Senate, which she hammers at every opportunity (and which polls favorably for her in Massachusetts, according to PPP; they found that 53 percent of voters in the commonwealth would prefer a Democratic senatorial majority).

However, Warren sometimes seems as eager to avoid appearing overly partisan as any other politician.

“I don’t think this is about parties, I think this is about whose side you stand on,” Warren told reporters at a press availability outside an event in Dorchester. And a favorite line: “I would work with anyone who was working to try to help America’s working families.”

The problem is that Brown’s image as an independent voice in the Senate has proved tough to beat. He’s winning independents in the state and often comes out on the moderate-friendly side of debates within the Republican Party; he was one of the first to call for Rep. Todd Akin to drop out of his Senate race, and he sent a letter to Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus asking that pro-choice views be included on the Republican Party platform.

And Republicans in the state, while they admit they start at a disadvantage, don’t believe Warren will succeed on personality.

“She seems not particularly likable to me,” said Sean Bielat, a Republican trying for the second time to win Barney Frank’s seat in the House (Brown, a Wrentham native, would be Bielat’s constituent if he won).

“She seems very academic, very removed,” Bielat said. “I disagree strongly with her policy views but then in addition there’s this question of personality. I think Scott Brown has a big edge in that department.”

But Warren on the stump in August is not the same as Warren stiffly insisting she’s proud of her Native American heritage back in April.

“She’s a fantastic woman and you can just feel the excitement,” said Kathleen Walker, a Democrat running for state representative in Worcester County.

Asked if Warren’s status as a non-Massachusetts native was any problem, Walker replied that she didn’t realize Warren wasn’t from the state.

“Well, she’s from Massachusetts now,” Walker said.

In traditionally working-class Dorchester, Warren seemed relatively relaxed, even like she was enjoying herself. A crowd of about 30 people had gathered to meet her over lunch at the Harp & Bard on Dorchester Avenue. They cheered for a shortened version of her stump speech and were thrilled when she circulated through the tables, holding a baby and shaking hands. Joyce Harvey, a retiree from Dorchester, said she’d even held a birthday party for Warren (Warren didn’t attend, but did phone in to the party).

Outside with reporters, Warren looked confident, even cocky. The questions were focusing on a topic she could talk about all day: explaining the merits of hers versus Brown’s economic plans.

“I think Scott Brown is really nervous,” she said.