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Can Elizabeth Warren win?

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The entrance of Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren (D) into the race to face Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (R) has already drawn huge amounts of media attention thanks to her high profile role in establishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for President Obama.

Elizabeth Warren listens during a hearing before the Congressional Oversight Panel that was created to oversee the expenditure of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

There’s little question that Warren is a media sensation beloved by liberals and detested by conservatives — largely for her work to create the controversial agency that is tasked with overseeing the practices of the financial industry.

The more relevant question, however, is can she actually win?

The answer to that question is entirely dependent on how Warren is ultimately defined in the eyes of Massachusetts voters.

Is she a reflexive liberal with positions out of step with the many Democratic but conservative minded voters in the Bay State? Or is she a populist firebrand, fighting for the average working family in Massachusetts? On one side is (potential) victory. On the other near-certain defeat.

Warren clearly grasps the need to cast her admittedly in-your-face approach to politics as the sort of fighting spirit that Massachusetts voters have shown an affinity for in the past — most notably in Ted Kennedy, the man who held the seat Warren is seeking for the better part of five decades.

According to the Post’s Ylan Mui, Warren began her first day as an official candidate with a stop in South Boston (at a Dunkin Donuts no less!). Southie — think “Good Will Hunting” — is the home to many of the conservative Democrats that Warren must win in order to claim the party’s nomination and best Brown.

“I’m willing to throw my body in front of the bus to stop bad ideas,” Warren proclaimed on the trail this morning.

Just in case anyone missed the idea of Warren as populist scrapper, she drove it home in a video announcing her candidacy in which she says the middle class has been “chipped at, hacked at, squeezed and hammered for a generation now,” adding: “I don’t think Washington gets it.”

Due to her high profile among liberals nationally, a profile that likely translates into oodles of campaign cash, Warren is a clear favorite in what is a crowded primary fight that includes CityYear founder Alan Khazei, activist Bob Massie and Newton Mayor Setti Warren.

In addition to what is expected to be a significant financial advantage over her Democratic opponents, Warren has, according to longtime party strategist Jim Jordan, proven her candidate abilities during the run-up to her announcement.

“The early questions were mainly about her political instincts and talents,” said Jordan. “The early indicators in those regards are very, very good. Her message and performance and the character she’s projected have been absolutely first rate.”

With Warren as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, Republicans will immediately begin their efforts to define her as outside-the-mainstream.

“If she is chosen as the nominee more than a year from now then we would welcome the contrast between a tax and spend liberal from Harvard who wants to raise taxes and increase spending, versus Scott Brown who wants to rein-in spending, keep taxes low for working families and empower Massachusetts businesses to create jobs,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee communications director Brian Walsh.

Walsh added that the Democratic primary in Massachusetts isn’t until next September and there are few signs that Warren’s opponents are planning to step aside for her any time soon. That means a long and potentially costly fight simply for the right to take on Brown.

And, Brown is no easy target. He demonstrated in his 2010 special election victory over state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) that he can appeal to independents and even many Democrats with an “average Joe” pitch — remember the pick up truck — that resonates with voters in the Bay State.

For Warren to win, she has to co-opt the ideological middle — independents and conservative Democrats — that Brown so successfully courted in 2010. Her task should be made somewhat easier in that 2012 is a presidential year and, as such, ensures heavier turnout than in 2010 with the state’s Democratic leanings asserting themselves more firmly.

Polling suggests that while Warren is the strongest potential candidate against Brown, she begins the race behind. A survey conducted by WBUR, a NPR-affilated radio station in Boston, showed Brown leading Warren by nine points.

Massachusetts is viewed as Democrats’ best pick-up opportunity in a 2012 cycle where the party must defend 23 seats as Republicans play defense in just 10.

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