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Opinion Elizabeth Warren has something Hillary Clinton didn’t

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Jan. 4.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Jan. 4. (Nati Harnik/AP)

The line to get into the final event of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s weekend tour of Iowa began forming 2½ hours in advance. Standing at the very front were Kristin Wesner and her daughter Alaina.

Arriving for the Sunday morning forum extra-early was Alaina’s idea. Despite the January chill, the 9-year-old wanted to be absolutely sure she would get a prime spot to see the all-but-announced Democratic presidential candidate.

Her mom, Kristin, a psychology professor, is hoping Warren can do what Hillary Clinton, whom she supported in 2016, could not: be the first woman to make it all the way to the White House. Though there may be upward of two dozen presidential contenders coming through Iowa over the 13 months between now and its first-in-the-nation caucuses, “she’s at the top of my list right now,” Kristin said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren campaigned in northwest Iowa as part of her inaugural appearances in the first presidential caucus state. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post)

The political-insider chatter is already suggesting that Warren might have a “likability” problem, just like the one that supposedly was Clinton’s downfall. And if two or three other women join the race, which appears likely, they will no doubt hear that as well. As a headline on the humorous McSweeney’s website put it: “I Don’t Hate Women Candidates — I Just Hated Hillary and Coincidentally I’m Starting to Hate Elizabeth Warren.”

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Judging by the packed houses at Warren’s events over the weekend, however, insiders may be selling Democratic voters short. “People decided 20 years ago whether they liked Hillary Clinton, back when her husband was president,” Kristin said. On the other hand, she sees Warren offering a fresher appeal: “Her message is consistent, and she’s looking out for the middle class.”

Were it not for the fact that they are both women — and frequent targets of President Trump, those two things not necessarily being unrelated — it’s hard to imagine a reason that Warren’s bid would already be freighted by associations with Clinton’s.

The populist Massachusetts senator has made no secret of her disdain for Clinton’s brand of politics, which she says was too cozy with big banks and powerful interests. During the 2016 Democratic primaries, Warren pointedly waited until after President Barack Obama formally endorsed his former secretary of state, who was by then the presumptive Democratic nominee, before throwing her support behind Clinton.

Warren represents a stark contrast from Clinton in a more fundamental way. While Clinton had a 20-point plan ready for every question, she failed to weave it all together into anything that resembled a coherent rationale for her candidacy. At one point, her campaign, floundering to articulate what she stood for, put together a document of 84 ideas for slogans. By the end, her message seemed to be only that Trump was not fit to be president.

Warren, on the other hand, diagnoses virtually every issue — from student debt to climate change, gun control to retirement security — with the same blunt prescription. “The answer is corruption, pure and simple. We have a government that works for those at the top,” she says. “When we get organized, when we push back, we can make some real change.” It is noticeable that Trump’s name rarely crosses her lips, a sign she believes this message can connect with some of the same frustrated middle-class voters who flocked to him in 2016.

She is the first major Democrat to announce an exploratory committee. No doubt the enthusiasm that greeted her this past weekend in Iowa partly reflects how energized her party is, and how determined Democrats are to find a champion who can defeat Trump.

But there was also plenty of evidence that Warren has an appeal all her own. In every audience, there were women wearing T-shirts (and in one case, a 9-month-old girl in a onesie) emblazoned NEVERTHELESS, SHE PERSISTED — a now-famous complaint by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) about his efforts to silence Warren in a 2017 Senate debate.

At this early stage, Warren is in a relatively strong position in Iowa. A December Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom poll of likely Democratic caucusgoers found 65 percent have a favorable opinion of her. She is already lining up some of the state’s most highly regarded political operatives for her team.

Warren’s events also had the personal touch that Iowans like, leaving plenty of time afterward for her to pose for selfies with anyone who wanted them. And she gamely took questions, even uncomfortable ones, from her audiences. In Sioux City, the first one was about her highly criticized decision to take a DNA test to answer Trump’s taunts about her claims to Native American heritage. “My decision was: I’m just gonna put it all out there,” she said.

Maybe that is really the lesson other female candidates should take from Hillary Clinton: Your enemies are coming after you anyway. Moving with caution only gives them a better chance to run you over.

Read more:

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James Downie: ‘Warren 2020’ is good for the Democrats

Jennifer Rubin: Elizabeth Warren has her act together. Democratic 2020 hopefuls better wake up.

Elizabeth Bruenig: Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test is about more than politics

Alexandra Petri: How to be likable