Image: Elizabeth Warren
Adam Hunger  /  REUTERS
Elizabeth Warren speaks with the media as she campaigns after announcing her candidacy for the U.S. Senate in Framingham, Massachusetts, September 14, 2011.
updated 10/5/2011 1:40:10 PM ET 2011-10-05T17:40:10

First-time candidate Elizabeth Warren has eclipsed her five Democratic rivals and emerged as the leading challenger to Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown just three weeks after launching her campaign.

Warren, who has a national following after spending nearly two decades as a consumer advocate and Harvard law professor, is largely untested on the campaign trail. So her fast start has relieved and energized many Democrats who had been clamoring for a major challenger for months in their hopes to reclaim the seat once held by Sen. Edward Kennedy.

"It is a long, grueling and very public process, but so far she has handled herself well," said Mike Shea, a veteran Democratic consultant. "What Democrats want more than anything is a winner. And she looks like a winner."

Video: Elizabeth Warren: Who's lobbying for middle class families? (on this page)
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Democrats face a difficult fight to unseat Brown. He is a strong fundraiser, with nearly $10 million at the end of June. And he's popular among independents who have strong sway in Massachusetts races.

Warren turned in a solid performance and faced no direct jabs from her rivals in the race's opening debate Tuesday night. And she is far outpacing the other Democratic candidates — they poll in single digits while she polled at 38 percent, about even with Brown in a recent poll. National progressive groups are providing fundraising and organizational muscle. A video clip of Warren calling for more taxes on the rich fired up her liberal base of support and became a YouTube hit.

Newton Mayor Setti Warren, no relation, cited her surging candidacy as a major reason for dropping out of the race last week.

"Elizabeth Warren has captured the imagination of Democrats nationally, here in the state," he said. "She changed the dynamics of the race certainly for me and it was clear to me that because of that I was not going to be able to go on and win."

But another Democratic candidate, Alan Khazei, said that even though party leaders in Washington are behind her and she's ahead in polls, the race is far from over.

"She's made a big splash getting into the race," said Khazei, known for his fundraising and grassroots organizing abilities as City Year youth program co-founder. "She's gotten a lot of support from the Washington establishment and they can bring a lot of attention. But this election is just getting started. Polls a year out are meaningless."

Khazei said no one knows where Warren stands on many key issues.

"We have to see what kind of agenda she has," he said.

She's struck populist themes, casting herself as a defender of middle-class families against wealthy corporate and financial special interests.

The YouTube video of Warren justifying more taxes for the rich went viral, but it also sparked sharp criticism from Republicans who accused her of waging class warfare and suggested she was being un-American, bolstering their broader line of attack on Warren as an out-of-touch Harvard liberal. The video had more than 632,000 views.

"Elizabeth Warren and her inflammatory rhetoric will divide our country and our Commonwealth at a time when we need to come together to confront the very serious economic challenges facing us,'" Jim Barnett, Brown's campaign manager, said in a fundraising email. "Let's remember we're Americans first."

Shea said the GOP has trained its fire on Warren because they see her as Brown's biggest threat.

Warren has won support from national groups such as EMILY's List, which raises money for female Democratic candidates, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a national liberal group which has raised more than $400,000 for her., a progressive group, said it raised more than $300,000 for Warren in less than 24 hours.

She'll need that support to help cut into Brown's money advantage.

Faced with a crowded field, Democrats worry that a long, costly and divisive primary could dash their hopes of reclaiming the seat after their embarrassing loss to Brown in 2010. Many party officials hope the party can unite behind Warren, the sooner the better.

Rep. Niki Tsongas, the only woman in the Massachusetts congressional delegation, endorsed Warren this week.

Warren was chosen by President Barack Obama last year to set up a new consumer protection agency, but congressional Republicans opposed her becoming the director.

Other Democrats running for the seat are attorney Marisa DeFranco, state Rep. Tom Conroy, Newton resident Herb Robinson and Robert Massie, who unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor in 1994.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Elizabeth Warren: Who's lobbying for middle class families?

  1. Closed captioning of: Elizabeth Warren: Who's lobbying for middle class families?

    >>> i'm going to do this. i'm going to run for the united states senate . and the reason is straight forward. middle class families have been chipped at, hacked at, squeezed and hammered for a generation now. and i don't think washington gets it.

    >> ahh. she's fabulous. can we start that way? yes, we can. 20 past the hour. massachusetts voters are quickly getting to know the name elizabeth warren . a new poll has her slightly ahead of senator scott brown , just a week after announcing her candidacy. and joining us now, democratic senate candidate, elizabeth warren . very good to have you on the show this morning as a candidate now.

    >> good to be here.

    >> also at the table, msnbc and "time" magazine senior political analyst mark halperin . and john heilmann still with us in autstin. a packed table. elizabeth , you have never run for office. why did you decide to do this? what makes you think that at this point this is the time in your life you ought to be stepping into politics?

    >> you know, politics is not what i've spent my life aiming toward. but i've been working on these issues around the economics of middle class families. and it really is the case. i've just been watching them get hammered. and washington really is wired for the big corporations for those with power who can hire an army of lobbyists and an army of lawyers. and we just can't have that anymore.

    >> but how do you think you can change that? as a senator? how can you change that?

    >> you know, let me start this way. i've engaged in exactly one campaign in my life. and that was the campaign to get the consumer financial protection bureau owe. we were up against the toughest lobbying force ever assembled on the face of the earth. and they said they would make it a first priority to kill that consumer agency. and what i discovered there is, you get out and you just keep talking about it. we assembled a lot of groups. there were a lot of groups that got together on this. and just said, this is something we need and we need it now. but it takes people who really are going to push back against the powerful lobbyists.

    >> did the president push back against the powerful lobbyists? because you weren't allowed to be the head of the agency that you were responsible for.

    >> for creating.

    >> well, let's be clear. i think you start in exactly the right place. and that is, in the case of this consumer agency, i was out there pushing for this consumer agency, there were a lot of groups that pushed for it, the afl-cio u consumers' union, lots of little groups around the country. and the president of the united states . you know, if barack obama had not been president of the united states , we would not have gotten a consumer financial protection bureau. so the way i see this is he stood strong for the part of it that i certainly understand, and that is for consumers against credit card companies and mortgage companies and student loan outfits. all of which said, you know, the way we want to do business is through tricks and traps and fine print and fooling people. and he made this -- he was the one who held on, and we got this thing into law.

    >> mark halperin .

    >> professor warren, i want to ask about another area you were asked to deal with. what do you see over the next several years, the major threats from the chinese military to u.s. interests around the world?

    >> well, you know, let's face it. the chinese right now -- i see this as on an economic dimension. what the chinese are doing is that they are investing in their infrastructure right now. you know, they're investing, what, about 9.5% of their gdp in their infrastructure. that makes them more powerful economically.

    >> professor warren, i'm sorry, i was asking not about the economic challenge from china, but the military challenge from them.

    >> but i don't think they're separatable. i think if you separate them, you're missing the point. i think what the chinese are doing, they build themselves economically so they can have influence around the world. they're interested in having military influence around the world. but that is profoundly connected to the economic decisions they're making. the two go hand in hand in terms of making them a powerful juggernaut around the world. it's why the questions around the weakness of our economy right now, the fact that we are not investing in our infrastructure, that we don't have any plan looking forward to build a strong economy and a strong middle class , it not only has implications economically here at home, it has implications militarily around the world. i just don't see the two as separate --

    >> elizabeth , actually, i agree with your point, that the greatest challenge that the chinese present to the united states over the next -- well, century, is not military. it's economic. but to mark's point, is there one particular sphere of influence that concerns you the most, militarily, with the chinese?

    >> well, the obvious one is what they do in the asian region, because there's such a dominant influence already there. and is so an area where i think it keeps us entangled in ways we otherwise didn't want to be. why do we have all of the back and forth with north korea ? we have the back and forth with north korea , because of the implications with china.

    >> yeah.

    >> so it's like keeping our foot tangled in a rope in that part of the world.

    >> john heilmann is in austin, texas. are you doing grass roots work for the perry campaign, heilmann ?

    >> what are you doing there?

    >> or just listening to music?

    >> i'm doing jewish outreach down here for governor perry.

    >> so do you have a question for elizabeth ?

    >> i sure do. professor warren, i'm curious. you talked about the fact that really your campaign experience -- i'm going to ask you a political question here -- that your campaign experience was leading the campaign for the consumer protection bureau. which you did successfully. largely against republican opposition. i'm curious, over the course of the next year, you're going to be in a battle against fellow democrats. how comfortable are you in making the transition to being in a position where you're going to have to criticize people with whom you largely agree on a lot of issues of substance? is that going to come easily to you? are you ready to make that transition?

    >> you know, i don't know if this is -- i don't think anyone has to ask the question about whether or not i'm willing to criticize anyone. i think my reputation precedes me. i'm going to actually answer your question slightly differently, since you're down there doing grass roots . i think the most fun about making this transition is i actually getting to out and talk to people. i get to spend all day long traveling around the state of massachusetts and shaking hands and holding babies. it in many ways for me, this is like -- this is like going to family reunions , you know, people show up and they tell me about what's going on in their lives, and we talk a little. they give me advice and tell me about what i should be wearing and, you know -- all kinds of things. but people -- it's a chance to talk with people. and the whole notion of pulling people together, whether it's in person, town by town, or whether it's online, you know, at elizabe, however it's done. getting together with people is the part of this that makes it exciting to do. it makes it -- it makes it the right thing to do. i really like this.

    >> you know, mike barnicle , we've talked about it all of the time. we actually talked about it with martha coakley not seeming to enjoy it so much. i remember when i would knock on doors. i would go knock on doors -- you talk about ted kennedy loving -- i would knock on doors and people would say, oh, that's awful. are you kidding me? i don't know these people, they invite me into their houses. they're like, sit down, have spaghetti. and, hey, by the way, this is what i want you to do. you know, most people hate that. but it sounds like elizabeth loves that. that is a great sign.

    >> well, no, clearly professor warren, off of her first few weeks in this campaign clearly does enjoy that aspect of retail campaigning. and professor warren, you were just talking about the people that you encounter on the campaign trail. so let's maybe, if we can, you know, talk about those people. let's pretend you're in worcester or fitchburg --

    >> i've been there --

    >> by the way, fitchburg is barnicle's hometown. he hasn't been there in ten years, but go ahead, mike.

    >> a state dominated by democrats. where it's in the water that people feel across the ideological spectrum that they just don't get the best bang for their buck tax wise in a state with the last three former speakers of the house have been indicted and convicted. and you have only one republican, this guy scott brown , seeming to represent an opposite point of view from the democrats. what's your pitch to people who feel that we need at least one republican in there to balance the scales? what makes you different?

    >> you know, i don't think this is about party. when you talk about this. i don't think there's something that's magic that comes from being part of a party. i really do think this is a question about how government works. and how in particular it works in washington right now. you know, look at how it works right now. big company like general electric pays nothing in taxes, while we're turning around and saying college students, you're going to have to take on more debt in order to get an education or seniors, you may have to learn to live on less. the importance of this is to say, they can hire ge , an army of lobbyists, to get a complicated tax code that has just those little special openings for it. and then they can hire an army of lawyers to slide all the way through that. who is it who represents middle class families? who is lobbying on behalf of middle class families? you know, there was a time coming out of the great depression when we put some basic economic rules in place, but we spent 50 years building america's middle class . we said, the laws we want to pass are for the middle class . about a generation ago, we stopped doing that, and i think that's what people want to talk about.

    >> well, i agree with you about tax loopholes and everything like that. but in this case -- and now you're a united states senator so ge says, listen, we're trying to work something out, we would like to close some loopholes, but we have to remain profitable. and by the way, you get this plant in lynn -- we hate to have to lay people off in lind, massachusetts. help us out here. what do you do?

    >> you know, the help us out cannot be -- you're asking a question of values. and you want to say to a company like ge , we're glad to help you out. we want you to be profitable. nobody wants them not to be profitable. no one wants them to lay people off. but the answer can't be, you pay no taxes while somebody making $42,000 a year has to pay up. somebody who is trying to run a little tiny business, who knows, maybe the next ge is having to fork over money in taxes. it's a fundamental fairness. it's not that you want somebody to be not profitable. it's that you want to share the burden here. you want to do this fairly. you know, ultimately, this is about economics. but it's also about values. and i think somebody has just got to keep standing up and talking about that sort of thing. people feel like the game is rigged against them. and it's not right. it's just not right.

    >> professor warren, it's willie geist . i go back to something mika asked you earlier. what can one person, you being that one person in this scenario, do to change that system that you've just described, which is flooded with money and lobbyists and everything else? you say the game is rigged. when you look at that landscape in washington , what can you do to change it?

    >> you know, willie , i hope you're not asking the question, won't you just give up before you ever start?

    >> of course not. but what can you do --

    >> because it's too hard. i think the answer is just like it was before. when i first started arguing for this consumer financial protection bureau, people said to me, give up now. because you'll just be one voice, and one voice can't get anything done. i think that's a -- i just think that's wrong. i think one voice stands up, says what you say, you say it directly, you say it straight to the people. you say it straight to camera, you say it straight to anywhere that you have a chance to say it and keep saying it and keep saying it and keep saying it. and you know what? sometimes one voice turns into three. and sometimes it turns into 30. and sometimes it turns into 30,000. and then we reach a point where as happened before , something nobody was going to vote on, because the lobbyists said they didn't want it. it just becomes politically impossible not to. i guess the way i'm trying to say this, willie , is that it isn't one person. this is really about movement. this is about getting lots of people organized. i'll tell you why i want to go out. and meet everybody in the state of massachusetts . it's not only to earn their votes. it's to get them engaged. it's to say to them, go to sign up. be part of this. because when i stand up and talk, i don't want to just be talking for me. i want to be talking for you, as well. because that's what gives it real strength. if we don't believe that, willie , the game really then is over. and i'm just not prepared to accept that. i'm prepared to fight. i think it's worth fighting for.

    >> somebody knows her value. elizabeth warren , thank you very much. it's great to see you. good luck. john heilmann , thank you, as well.

    >> thank you, professor.

    >> see you soon.

    >> thank you.


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