The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Elizabeth Warren’s all-or-nothing moment

Elizabeth Warren will take the stage in Charlotte on Wednesday night as a rising star in the Democratic Party, a favorite of liberals, and a leading voice in the party when it comes to Wall Street regulation.

For Warren, Wednesday night’s convention address could be the first of many such high-profile speeches, but there’s also a chance it could be among the last. Warren is challenging Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) in a race that could well determine whether she cements her status at the top of the Democratic pecking order or fades into the background.

In other words, it’s pretty much an all-or-nothing election for Warren.

Warren, the architect of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, was recruited by Democrats to challenge Brown, who surprisingly won a 2010 special election over Democrat Martha Coakley. With President Obama at the top of the ticket in the deep blue state of Massachusetts, the party is presented with a strong opportunity to snatch the seat back from the GOP. The race is also one of a handful which stand to collectively determine which party controls the upper chamber next year.

When it comes to fundraising, Warren hasn't disappointed her supporters. She's notched record quarter after record quarter, even outraising second tier presidential candidates in some instances. Brown's once imposing cash on hand advantage has been dramatically narrowed.

If Warren wins in November, expect to hear a lot more about her in the coming months and years. She's already been mentioned as a potential 2016 presidential candidate and few politicians can raise cash at anywhere near the pace she has set this cycle.

But if is the key word. If she doesn't win, the comparisons to Coakley (whose unsteady campaign sunk her chances against Brown in 2010) could begin to fly. Political celebrity could give way to disappointment that even in a presidential year with Obama at the top of the ticket, Warren could not squeak out a win.

Winning is no sure bet for Warren. In fact, lately, much of the momentum in the race has appeared to be on the other side. A recent survey from Democratic automated pollster Public Policy Polling showed Brown with a slight lead over Warren after being tied with her in late June.

As Democrats sought to tie him to embattled Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), who said that "legitimate" rape rarely causes pregnancy, Brown quickly called for Akin to end his bid. He also penned a letter to Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus urging more inclusion in the party platform on abortion.

Wednesday's speech comes at an opportune time for Warren, as she tries to change the trajectory of the race and write a new chapter in the campaign. Both she and Brown are making a pitch to working class voters in Massachusetts. Brown is often reliant on his every-man appeal while Warren's presentation is rooted in a vow to stand up to the financial industry -- something she could underscore in her speech.

But don't expect Warren to devote all her time to Brown on Wednesday night. Her chief strategist told the Boston Globe that she will not be mentioning him by name and will instead focus on a contrast between Obama and Mitt Romney.

Unlike a couple of other high-profile Senate candidates who have spoken at recent Democratic conventions, Warren's fate in November is uncertain. Obama, the 2004 keynote speaker, was well on his way to a Senate victory when he spoke in Boston. So was Mark Warner, the 2008 keynote speaker in Denver. (Warren's not the keynote speaker this year. That honor is held by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who spoke on Tuesday night.)

Even if she loses in November, Warren will still have a base of support. She wouldn't be able to raise the money she has without some deep loyalty. But at future conventions and other high-profile Democratic gatherings, it would be hard for her allies to argue in favor of  a prominent place for her.

On the other hand, if she wins, Warren's national support could rapidly intensify and the presidential chatter -- and it's important to note that it is simply speculation now -- could ramp up more seriously.

Wednesday night is a big one for Warren in Charlotte. But it's a bigger night in terms of what it means in Massachusetts, which is the home of many independent voters. How Warren comes across to them might determine how many more big nights are yet to come for the Democrat.