2020 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks to local residents during an organizing event, Friday, May 3, 2019, in Ames, Iowa.(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Warren finds 2020 footing selling policy with personal touch

May 08, 2019 - 4:41 pm

OSAGE, Iowa (AP) — Before Elizabeth Warren pitches voters on her tax plan, she talks about her memories of her mom's struggle to pay the mortgage. Before she talked about government ethics on a recent stop, she told locals their town reminds her of her Oklahoma home.

The personal touch may be unexpected from a former academic who made her name explaining housing policy. But in bakeries, breweries and hotel ballrooms, the Massachusetts senator and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate is proving a down-to-earth campaigner, adding a homespun delivery to her complex proposals. After losing ground in the early fundraising chase, Warren appears to have steadied her campaign, building a strong foothold in Iowa. Democrats here are as likely to credit her connection with voters as her policy chops.

"She talks to a lot of people, but I feel like whatever she does in her stump speech, it moves you. It sneaks up on you," said Penny Rosfjord, of Sioux City, a member of the Iowa Democratic Party's state central committee. "I wasn't ready for her to be as passionate as she was."

Passion alone won't pave the way to the White House, of course. Warren typically trails former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders in early polling, landing in a cluster of other Democrats. Her plan to break out of the 21-candidate Democratic primary is built on an expensive field organization in the early states. With about 50 paid staffers in Iowa, her operation dwarfs the competition and will be difficult to sustain through a long campaign. Her campaign raised more than $6 million during the first quarter of the year despite eschewing high-dollar fundraisers, but it burned through about $5 million of that total.

Warren transferred more than $10 million left over from her Senate win last year to her presidential coffers. She may still have to make tough choices to hang on, said veteran Iowa Democratic strategist Matt Paul.

"I expect her to be someone who, if she can calibrate her operation with the resources available to her, she'll continue to do well," said Paul, who helmed Hillary Clinton's winning 2016 operation in the state. Especially in a situation where Biden and Sanders are pitted against each other, Paul added, which "could create a big opportunity for one of the other candidates to drive a truck through."

Whether Warren will be that candidate depends on more than just her skills on the stump. It's unclear whether her calls for "big, structural change" will fly with more moderate Democrats. Meanwhile, polls showing that Democrats are prioritizing a candidate's ability to beat President Donald Trump over other concerns suggest that perceived electability could ultimately outrank personal connection when Democrats pick their nominee next year.

A Suffolk University survey of New Hampshire voters released last week found Warren in fourth place in the state, host of the first-in-the-nation primary. Her electability against Trump was the central concern of 18% of those who didn't support her.

For now, though, signs of Warren's steady strategy are piling up. She gained ground in two national polls released last week, even after Biden muscled his way into the race as an early front-runner. And she's drawing notable crowds in Iowa: During her fifth visit last month, the president of the Linn Phoenix Club in Cedar Rapids said the crowd she turned out was much bigger than any they'd seen for a candidate visit. The next day, in Tipton, Iowa, supporters lined up down the block outside a local diner where Warren stopped to speak to the overflow crowd before her main event.

Warren's political courtship skills were evident in Osage. Kurt Meyer, the prominent local Iowa Democrat who introduced her there, elatedly told the crowd about exchanging text messages with the candidate. Warren used touches of humor and personal detail. When she got around to touting her proposed 2% tax on the rich in Iowa, it came as a plainspoken call to set aside "2 cents" of those wealthy Americans' dollars for public benefits such as universal child care.

And "12 free steak knives, if you order now," she joked to laughter from the 150 people who turned out in the town, whose population is under 4,000.

She recalled the financial stress that her father's heart attack put on her family. The minimum-wage job her mother got, Warren tells voters, saved their house and "it saved our family."

"What my mother taught me by example: No matter how scared you are, no matter how tough it is, you reach down deep, you find what you need to find, you pull it up, and you do what has to be done to take care of the people you love," she said in Osage, connecting that experience to the current moment's economic squeeze of income inequality.

"She feels like she's one of us," Stephanie Dicken, 50, of Denver, Iowa, said after Warren's event. "She doesn't feel like she's a politician who has so much more information and her life is so completely different than mine. She feels like my neighbor."

In fact, Warren does have more information — in the form of pure policies — than many others in the crowded Democratic primary. Since April, she's launched new plans for student loan debt cancellation , public land protection , military housing, corporate taxes , and fighting opioid addiction . T-shirts declaring "Warren has a plan for that" became the fastest-selling item on her campaign's website after their recent release.

But voters tend to praise her specificity and the connections she can draw between her plans and her personal ideals.

Osage resident Penney Morse, 68, lauded Warren as "relatable," adding that "I want to support somebody who's got some policies. I want to know what I'm voting for."

Warren has had plenty of practice. Before she became a political celebrity and leading consumer advocate during the Great Recession, she appeared on the popular talk show "Dr. Phil" in 2004 and 2005 to counsel viewers on financial literacy.

"People forget that the reason she was famous in first place, long before she entered politics, was that she had a unique ability to translate complex financial issues into terms people could understand and relate to," said Adam Jentleson, a former senior aide to onetime Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. "There's a reason Dr. Phil, of all people, decided to put her on his show."

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Associated Press writers Alexandra Jaffe in Tipton, Iowa, and Juana Summers in Houston contributed to this report.