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Opinion Why Elizabeth Warren is the one to watch

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a Democratic presidential candidate, at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Aug. 10. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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Rob Stutzman is a GOP political consultant in Sacramento.

Among the remaining contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, it seems clear that Elizabeth Warren has so far made the most of 2019.

Several considerations support this conclusion. The Massachusetts senator has plodded upward in the polls, buoyed by solid debate performances and what seems to be an indomitable spirit. Her promise to forswear large donations and the private events that attract them led to smirks from establishment pros. But she has saved precious time by skipping those events and her tally — $19.1 million in the second quarter — has made her the small-donor rocket ship. Meanwhile, as the field narrows and as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) proves that, in politics as in movies, the original act is almost always better than the sequel, Warren may soon benefit from a media narrative that prefers a two-person race.

But Warren is hitting her stride because of two other, more important, traits: style and substance. We’re used to politicians being good at one or the other; rarely do we see both.

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Consider the Warren style: Chiefly, it’s fearless. She was the first candidate to call for President Trump’s impeachment (likely a key to her fundraising), and to invoke her oath and fidelity to the Constitution as the imperative to seek Trump’s removal from office. On the debate stage and at her rallies, she’s pugnacious and has modulated her voice to be emphatic without screaming. “I’m a fighter” is one of her slogans, and it’s a credible one, especially when she implores those in the audience to “get up off [their] butt and volunteer!” She just doesn’t just want to fight; she wants to lead a fight.

All this is catnip for many rank-and-file Democrats, but don’t discount the potential for her to attract moderates who are looking for someone who can go toe to toe with Trump on a debate stage. More than one Democratic voter has mused to me that Warren is the only candidate who sounds like she might chew Trump’s leg off onstage. It’s a vivid contrast to Joe Biden, who at times seems to be observing the debates as much as participating in them. If Democrats come to define electability as a measure of who can take on a bully, Warren’s stock will rise.

Warren’s substance, meanwhile, is her killer app. Her proposals range from an “ultra-millionaire tax” to breaking up big tech companies to forgiving student loans; the decision to flood the zone with big and bold substance has become definitional. And, in a race in which Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) has had more positions on health care than toppings on a supreme pizza, Warren has emerged as a candidate of deep convictions.

So can Warren win this nomination? Certainly. Does that leave the Democrats with a nominee who can beat Trump? That’s not so certain.

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Trump thrives on opponents he can demonize and demagogue, and Warren would be dry tinder for his flamethrower. She has called for decriminalizing the border and providing health care to undocumented residents and Medicare-for-all, while her soak-the-rich world view is out of step with a majority of voters. All these pieces may provide Trump with a way to recast her as a risky choice; some of her Democratic rivals are already giving this tactic a dress rehearsal.

More broadly, there is a chance that Warren’s killer app could boomerang. A plan for everything? Even in politics, life isn’t that simple and most people know it. Trump has an uncanny way of turning his rivals’ strengths into debilitating weaknesses, and in his hands, in this strange era, her litany of policy proposals could become an object of ridicule and a rallying cry.

But if so, that’s still a ways down the road. When caucuses and primaries begin and ballots are cast, Warren may gain a momentum that lends her an aura of electability. It is already easy to imagine her as the nominee, moderating some of the policies that won her the left’s intellectual crush, reaching for a moderate counterweight, perhaps a general or a seasoned diplomat, as her running mate. Suburban voters who dumped the GOP in 2018 could find that an acceptable alternative to the man they now know isn’t the stable genius they might have imagined.

And if Medicare-for-all seems risky, it also seems unlikely ever to become law. Which might make Warren a risk worth taking.

Read more:

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Jennifer Rubin: There’s a reason Elizabeth Warren is surging

Paul Waldman: Where is Elizabeth Warren’s health care plan?

Helaine Olen: Elizabeth Warren and the double standards for female leaders

Jennifer Rubin: Warren’s success depends on her answering these five questions