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A Saint With Sharp Elbows

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Warren, joining Obama in July as he announces that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, her brainchild, will be led by someone else.  

As a political icon, Warren may be without equal these days, but as a political candidate, she’s still a novice. When I recently asked her to make the case against Brown, the sure-footedness she’s displayed on so many occasions suddenly deserted her. “This race is about America’s future, it’s about a choice,” she began confidently, before settling into a long, uncomfortable pause. She eventually continued, “Uh, uh, gosh, I know candidates are always supposed to have the great ten-second clip on how this works. Kyle”—she said, referring to her spokesman, Kyle Sullivan, who was sitting in on the interview—“is probably gnashing his teeth right at this moment. But”—she paused again—“it’s about whose side you stand on. Scott Brown is one of Wall Street’s favorite senators. Um, that’s not what I—I want to go to Washington—let me say it differently. Scott Brown’s one of Wall Street’s favorite senators. I want to go to the United States—I want to go to Washington to be the middle class’s favorite senator. Or the favorite senator of the middle class. Maybe that’s easier without the possessive.”

I asked Warren if there was anything besides Brown’s Wall Street ties that made her want to take him out. “There are surely other areas,” she replied, “on environmental issues, on the DREAM Act, on”—she hesitated again—“family issues.”

Like abortion?

“No, no, around LGBT,” Warren said. “ ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ was how it was framed, but there’s a whole, I hate to do it as just ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ Just kind of around the whole, you know, defense of marriage.” She sighed. “I’ll learn the way that politicians talk about these.”

The way most Democrats in Massachusetts and Washington talk about Brown is with thinly veiled contempt. His very presence in the Senate—coming about as it did through a special election necessitated by Kennedy’s death and against an inept opponent in Martha Coakley—is viewed as both a fluke and an affront. The mere fact that he now has to run in a regular election, much less one that’s taking place in a presidential year, when the Democrats’ three-to-one advantage in registered voters in Massachusetts should be particularly potent, is making Democrats confident, if not downright cocky. “We could put up Bugs Bunny against Scott Brown this year,” says one Massachusetts Democratic strategist, “and it’d be a closer race than he had last time.”

But unseating Brown may not be so easy. Since he arrived in Washington as a tea-party hero, he’s done a masterful job of rebranding himself. Although he generally votes with Republicans, he’s sided with Democrats enough times on high-visibility issues—including “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the Dodd-Frank financial-reform legislation (although only after earning concessions for big Massachusetts banks)—that he touts himself as “one of the most bipartisan, if not the most bipartisan, senator there.” Just last week, he announced that he was opposing the top legislative priority of the National Rifle Association. “He’s trying to position himself as the third woman from Maine,” says Jack Corrigan, a veteran Massachusetts Democratic consultant, referring to those models of moderation, Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. And then there’s Brown’s personal appeal. Despite his time in Washington, he hasn’t ditched the pickup truck and barn jacket that came to define his 2010 race.

The contrast between the Massachusetts Everyman and the Harvard Professor is one that Republicans are eager to make—and one that Warren’s campaign has spent much of its time trying to rebut. Indeed, Warren’s advisers can be almost paranoid about how she is portrayed. When another reporter recently went to interview Warren at the house she shares with her second husband, a fellow law professor, Warren’s campaign allowed it only on the condition that the house itself—a restored Victorian a few blocks from Harvard Square that, according to financial-disclosure forms, is valued between $1 million and $5 million­—was off the record.

Warren, who is 62 years old with big blue eyes, a blonde bob, and a wardrobe of cardigans and turtlenecks, looks every bit the professor. But she’s quick to note that she “wasn’t born at Harvard.” One evening last month, she stood in the dining room of a supporter in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, introducing herself to a mostly young and professional crowd, and the first thing she chose to talk about was her humble roots. “I grew up in a family that was kind of hanging on to its place in the middle class by its fingernails,” she said of her childhood in Oklahoma City. “I started waiting tables when I was 13. I got married when I was 19. I graduated from a public university, and I went to work then teaching in public elementary school, working with ­special-needs kids. My first baby was born when I was 22.” The distance she’d traveled seemed a genuine source of wonder to her. “From being the daughter of a maintenance man to a fancy-pants professor at Harvard Law School,” she said, her voice cracking. “America is a great country.” The crowd chuckled, but Warren didn’t mean it to be a punch line. “I really believe that,” she insisted.


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