Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in Ottumwa, Iowa, on May 26. (Rachel Mummey/Reuters)
Columnist

In boxing they call it “a glass jaw.” A fighter looks sharp until the first blow to the kisser. Then (as President Trump might say): Bye-bye. Can’t take a punch.

The glass jaw is a common feature among presidential candidates. How many times have we seen a good-looking governor or sapient senator enter the ring robed in shiny endorsements and muscled up with money, only to drop like a carton of eggs at the first gaffe or zinger?

Elizabeth Warren’s jaw ain’t glass.

Since hitting the canvas earlier this year, Warren has rallied, through a combination of hard work and big ideas. You see it in the poll numbers. After a self-inflicted blow — she took a DNA test to prove her claimed Cherokee heritage, only to reveal that she might be among the least Native American people ever to come from Oklahoma — she’s back in the middle of the fight, according to RealClearPolitics’ rolling average of polls.

And you see it on the ground. The Massachusetts senator drew robust crowds and had them cheering during her recent Memorial Day weekend swing through Southeast Iowa. On a Sunday afternoon, many months before Caucus Day, more than 200 people ignored the beckoning springtime to pack the ballroom of the Hotel Ottumwa. A couple of hours later, with the sky as blue as it has been in ages, twice as many overflowed an event space in downtown Fairfield. A lot of romance attaches to the image of would-be presidents campaigning in living rooms and backyards of small-town farm country. But don’t be misled: They would much rather be filling ballrooms.

Of course, the point of gathering a crowd for a campaign event is to win them over. Warren approaches the task the old-fashioned way: She’s a storyteller. Hers is an emphatically populist message, so she leads with her populist bona fides: She’s the child of a department store salesman whose midlife heart attack nearly bankrupted his family. Warren’s mother was determined to save the family home, and a minimum-wage job at a Sears catalogue center allowed her to do it. That was back when the government looked out for working-class people, she says.

Warren actually undersells her biography. She tells her audiences that she dropped out of college to get married yet managed to earn a law degree while having two children. She boils her career as one of America’s leading authorities on bankruptcy at some of the world’s most prestigious law schools down to this: “I started teaching law. But basically I taught money.”

And with that, her story becomes her pitch. What was possible for her mother (saving a family on the minimum wage) and what was possible for Warren herself (getting an education without a crushing load of debt) are no longer realistic for the “hollowed-out middle class.” And why? “Corruption, pure and simple — and we need to call it out, pure and simple.”

That’s when the whooping and clapping begins, and Warren launches into a jeremiad against corporate concentration: “Big Ag” — as in agriculture — “Big Oil,” “Big Tech,” “Big Finance.” The narrative seems to lead inevitably, irresistibly, to her grand conclusion: a wealth tax on the richest Americans.

To a cranky old journalist in the back of the room, this sounds like a difficult lift. Not just getting the idea through Congress and past a conservative Supreme Court. Surely a massive apparatus would be required to appraise all “the stock portfolios, the diamonds, the Rembrandts and the yachts” of the ultra-wealthy so that the 2 percent or 3 percent annual tax on the assets of the upper class could be levied and collected. Even if you could get it past Congress, think of the legal challenges to those appraisals.

Yet Warren makes it sound as simple as plucking pennies from the sofa cushions. “For 2 cents from the top one-tenth of 1 percent,” as she puts it, America can have universal child care, prekindergarten, tuition-free college and forgiveness of nearly all student loan debt.

By this point, nearly every sentence is an applause line for Warren’s crowds, which run the gamut from fuchsia-haired youths to blue-rinsed seniors and appear to draw particularly well from current and retired public school teachers. Former vice president Joe Biden, banking on union support to help him bulldoze a path through a crowded field of candidates, might want to take notice.

She brought the Ottumwa crowd to its feet with her closing battle cry: “Dream big! Fight hard! Let’s win!” In Fairfield, the motto left only a few listeners in their seats. It won’t be the last these voters hear from Warren. At each stop, polite but persistent volunteers collect contact information from just about every person who comes through the doors.

A lot will happen between here and the nomination as Democrats decide how far they’ll swing to the populist left. But having picked herself up and brushed herself off, Elizabeth Warren looks ready to go the full 15 rounds.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.