If you’re following the expectations game, a third-place finish on Tuesday would be an accomplishment in a state where the senator was once considered the front-runner. Whether that would be enough to propel her on to Nevada and South Carolina certainly depends on which candidates she is able to beat and the margin between the candidates.
The beautiful stone structure, built in the 1820s, featuring a giant pipe organ and ornate crown moldings, was filled to capacity (the campaign gave an attendance figure of 785). Granted, it was a weekday afternoon, but it is striking how old the crowd is. Senior citizens predominate with a mix of 20-somethings. The sole African American woman I spotted in line turned out to be a student from Mercer, Ga. The lack of racial diversity, if anything, has been underplayed. This crowd does not look like America.
Warren remains relentlessly upbeat. “Isn’t it about time to have someone in the White House who actually likes dogs!?” she cracked after introducing her golden retriever, Bailey. On the eve of the primary, she spoke about the depressed state of Democrats who imagine that the election in November might not be winnable. She declared: “When you get knocked down, you get right back in and get in the fight!” It was an implicit recognition that electability has become a dark cloud over her campaign.
She returned to her biography, recounting her search for a college and success as a high school debater. Her winding road nevertheless led to her “dream job”: special education teacher. Perseverance. Willingness to fight. That led into her run for the Senate in 2012, a race she was told she couldn’t win. Again, a story of fighting and winning an unwinnable race. Again, she is making the case she really, really can win this race.
Warren is trying to stay in the mix at the top of the field. One member of Monday’s audience, Alice Day of Portsmouth, said concern about a female candidate’s electability is “garbage," but thinks the media has helped set that story line. An older couple from Portsmouth, Mara Witzlinger and Peter Cass, have been in Warren’s camp for a while, impressed by her smarts and honesty. On the electability front, Cass said, “No one can psych it out” so you might as well go with the person you like. Others remain torn between Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and between Warren and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg. Several of Warren’s supporters expressed exasperation that she has not gotten more coverage. “They don’t even mention her on ‘Morning Joe,’ ” a middle aged man said with obvious frustration.
When a candidate is forced to answer interview questions about “how she can turn her campaign around,” a candidate can either resort to punditry or stay on policy message. It is no surprise that Warren — the woman with the plans — has taken the latter approach. Now, with her back to the wall, her persistence and her ability to win tough fights has become part of her message. “It’s about the fight,” she said. “We are going to get knocked down." But she acknowledged that things were not going smoothly. “There’ll be bumps along the way,” she said, lowering her voice to a near whisper.
Her message remains intact: The government works great for the big corporations and those who have money. (“That’s corruption plain and simple,” she said to cheers.) When she insists “there are a lot more of us than there are of them,” she is talking not only about the influence of lobbyists and big corporations but her own political fate. Her promise to enact a wealth tax still draws ovations from her supporters.
She gave a shout-out to Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), two women she said had been “pushed out” of the race by money, and said she would incorporate their respective child-care and reproductive-rights policies. It was a small reminder that she has been trying to play to women voters much more openly than in the early days of her campaign.
When the questions shifted to foreign policy, however, her sure-footedness disappeared. A question from someone concerned about Israel and Democrats “moving away from Israel” (mentioning anti-Israel statements made by Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan) asked how Warren would defend Israel. She didn’t really respond to a query that seemed aimed at Israel’s immediate security needs. She replied that she wants to be a “good friend” to both Israel and the Palestinians by encouraging them to negotiate. “We don’t put our thumb on the scale,” for a final settlement, she answered, failing to make the usual bipartisan pledge to preserve Israel’s security and qualitative military edge.
Asked about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), she said “I don’t support anti-BDS legislation” because it infringes on the First Amendment; almost as an afterthought she said she also didn’t support “the boycott.” (She did not condemn it as many Democratic supporters of Israel do.) It was hardly the sort of answer that will reassure passionately pro-Israel voters and further pointed to her often sketchy grasp of foreign policy.
Warren’s sincerity remains but her path to the nomination has become rockier. On Tuesday and beyond, we will find out whether she can get knocked down but keep fighting.