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Boston Common

Elizabeth Warren’s uninspiring campaign.

THERE WAS ONCE A TIME, not so very long ago, that, whenever Elizabeth Warren sat down with a liberal interviewer, a lovefest was practically guaranteed. “I know your husband’s backstage. I still wanna make out with you,” Jon Stewart purred in early 2010 to the then-60-year-old Harvard professor whose rimless glasses perpetually slip down her nose. But when Warren appeared recently at Boston’s Kennedy Library to discuss her bid for the U.S. Senate with local public-radio fixture Christopher Lydon, the conversation wasn’t so effusive. Lydon is a uniquely Bostonian creature, a combination of highbrow liberalism and voice-of-the-common-man affect, with a ruddy face and a trim white beard. After Warren gave her standard speech to fulsome applause, he posed the question that is very much on the minds of Massachusetts Democrats these days—namely, “Why is your race close?”

Warren seemed visibly riled, her voice rising, and her hands slicing the air even more vigorously than usual. “Did anyone look at the front page of any of the local newspapers today? How many had a two-inch headline saying, 'Scott Brown voted to keep big money secret in politics?'” she asked, referring to a vote the previous day by Senate Republicans to block legislation that would have forced groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS to disclose their donors. “Was it on the television this morning? No. The whole point is those have just been pushed away, those stories. These are the stories that are central to the functioning of our democracy, and these are not the stories that are front and center.”

Warren’s frustration was palpable—and not so hard to parse. When she launched her campaign for the Senate, she was a liberal darling, famous for mixing it up with Timothy Geithner in congressional hearings as an overseer of the tarp bailouts and for defending the victims of Wall Street excesses with a homespun directness rare among Democrats. Her cult following swelled with a viral YouTube clip in which she gave one of the pithiest defenses of liberalism by an American politician in recent memory. She has raised vast sums of money—nearly $25 million at last count, among the biggest hauls on record.

And yet, in one of the bluest states in the country, Warren is running well behind Barack Obama, deadlocked with Scott Brown in her bid for a seat that many Democrats had assumed would be an easy pickup. “I’m candidly perplexed by what’s going on,” says Tom Birmingham, the former Democratic president of the state Senate. “Because I did think that, if the Democrats had a strong candidate—and I would have regarded Elizabeth Warren as a strong candidate—that we’d really be in a favorable position.”

IT WAS A PACKED HOUSE on a Friday night last January at the Elks Lodge in the solidly Democratic Boston neighborhood of West Roxbury. Several hundred locals had turned out to welcome home Mike Rush, a Democratic state senator who’d just completed an eight-month tour in Iraq with the Naval Reserves. Warren did not attend—but Brown did. “I’m guessing that, in this crowd of people, that on paper are heavily Democratic registration, he will do very, very well,” Larry DiCara, a former Democratic president of the Boston City Council, told me recently. DiCara’s law firm has held a fund-raiser for Warren, but he didn’t hide his admiration for Brown. “Scott Brown walks into a room without an entourage, drinks beer out of a bottle, attends events, enjoys himself, and stays. And he’s a really easy guy to like.”

Since entering the Senate, Brown has proved to be a remarkably agile politician—casting a symbolic vote against extending the Bush tax cuts while protecting the carried-interest loophole for investment managers; voting for financial reform, but not before weakening it at the behest of the banks who’ve given heavily to him. Still, he should be beatable in Massachusetts on the basis of one vote alone: the one he would cast to make Mitch McConnell majority leader of the Senate. And yet polls put his statewide approval rating at around 60.

One of Brown’s great advantages is that he has lived in Massachusetts virtually his entire life, and he never lets you forget it. He can be seen at opening day at Fenway Park; he’ll buy time on the Red Sox network to bid farewell to retiring players. Andrea Nuciforo Jr., a former Democratic state senator from Pittsfield who is running for Congress, recalls seeing Brown in action at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast in Sturbridge: “He talked about the Patriots, the Red Sox, and the weather.”

Warren is no carpetbagger—the Oklahoma native moved to Cambridge in 1995—but she lacks the same fluency in the state’s cultural preoccupations. She “doesn’t know that Ben Downing, the state senator from the Berkshires’ dad used to be the D.A. and he died of a heart attack shoveling snow,” says DiCara. “You can get briefed all you want, but it’s tough to understand that stuff.”

And yet Massachusetts’s current governor, Deval Patrick, hails from Chicago, while his predecessor, Mitt Romney, grew up in Michigan. In conversations with voters and longtime pols, I began to suspect the real problem was Warren’s celebrity— the checks she’d pulled in from Susan Sarandon and Oliver Stone; the fact that the source of her power wasn’t the state’s proud Democratic machine. Indeed, Warren has often struggled to find the right balance between her national profile and Massachusetts’s parochial politics. Her early ads cast her accomplishments in a soft hue, referring vaguely to an agency she'd created to “protect consumers.” “It made it sound like she was someone who rated kitchen utensils,” says Ralph Whitehead, a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts. The campaign team, a combination of Massachusetts veterans and Beltway hands like Mandy Grunwald, recently rolled out a more effective spot featuring working-class residents praising Warren—in very thick Boston accents—for taking on the big guys. But Warren herself was practically absent from the ads.

There may also be more subtle ways in which Warren’s most powerful arguments don’t play well in Massachusetts. Some of the banks that Warren has castigated Brown for protecting are major Boston institutions. And the preservation of Obama’s health care law seems less urgent in a state that already has its own universal coverage.

When I made the rounds of the state’s Democratic old guard, I was surprised at how openly they disparaged Warren. Jim Shannon, a former Democratic congressman and state attorney general, told me, “At this relatively late point in the campaign, I don’t have a fix on what type of candidate she is.” Boston Mayor Tom Menino has conspicuously avoided endorsing her altogether.

In particular, veteran politicos were dismayed by the Cherokee controversy—the revelation that Warren’s Ivy League employers had counted her as a Native American, despite scant genealogical evidence. “You look at it and say, ‘Shouldn’t that be a one- or two-day deal?’” says Shannon. “It turned into a month.” (The conservative Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr nicknamed Warren “Fauxchohontas,” and it stuck.) So far, polls suggest the Cherokee story has had little impact. But Birmingham was convinced it had drawn blood, by identifying Warren with a diversity-obsessed ivory tower, and he feared many voters wouldn’t give her the benefit of the doubt. “If she weren’t using it for her academic advantage, she hasn’t come up with a plausible explanation for why she was claiming it,” Birmingham says. He went on: “The only fear about Warren has been borne out. Although on paper she seemed great, she’s very articulate, people think she’ll kill Brown in the debates, she’s very, very smart. But as a candidate she’s completely untested.”

WARREN LIKES TO tell the story of a seminal moment in her Washington education. It took place during the debate over the bankruptcy bill of 2005, a bank-backed measure that made it harder for people to erase debts. Warren opposed the law, arguing that most people went bankrupt because of misfortune, not profligacy. After she briefed Hillary Clinton, the senator seemed persuaded by her pitch—but then voted for the bill. At the Kennedy Library, Lydon asked Warren whether she would buckle under similar pressures. No way, she said. “I haven’t had to trim my sails one bit, for one nickel.”

But Warren is plainly worried about her home-state credentials. In response to a query, her campaign sent me a list of two dozen events she’d attended this month, including a barbecue in Rutland and a sand-sculpting festival in working-class Revere. More substantively, she has quietly taken a position that would surprise some of her national fans—opposing a tax on medical devices that will provide $29 billion over ten years for the national health care law. The measure is unpopular with Massachusetts’s powerful device lobby, and Brown has hammered away at it all year. In April, Warren published an op-ed in an industry trade journal stating that she also favored repealing the tax and replacing its revenue with an “appropriate offset.” Two pro-Warren executives at device-making firms, who find the tax acceptable, told me they were puzzled by her stance. “I don’t know why she would have [opposed the tax] other than that she’s trying to compete with someone whose ... strategy is to be simple and anti-tax,” says Bob DeAngelis, the CFO of Katahdin Industries. “She’s falling into that trap of being overly simplistic.”

After a tour of a union sheet-metalworkers training facility in Dorchester, I asked Warren how this move was any different from Clinton’s flip on the bankruptcy bill. “Where’s the flip?” she asked indignantly. “There’s no flip there.” Well, I said, she had come out against a tax underpinning a law she strongly supported. “I never have supported the tax,” she replied. “It’s been a consistent position from the very first time I’ve spoken about it.” But wasn’t that similar to Clinton siding with the New York banks? “No! It’s not even close. Nope. It’s just not the same thing.”

It wasn’t hard to understand Warren’s agitation. She had launched a campaign based on the Aaron Sorkin–esque notion that, if a candidate laid out the facts and made her argument with conviction, voters would see the light. Reality, of course, is messier. In Dorchester, she was being challenged for a concession that was hardly unusual, but that was undeniably jarring coming from someone running on such an explicitly moral platform. Even her knack for the impassioned monologue is now being used against her: Brown is running ads tying her famous YouTube riff (“There’s nobody in this country who got rich on his own”) to Obama’s garbled version (“You didn’t build that”).

At the library, Lydon challenged Warren about the viability of her righteous approach to politics, guessing that aides sometimes told her to “cool it a little bit.” “You have to be an awfully nice girl to run for office and not be too strident or too depressing and not condescending about people’s problems. How are you working that?” he asked. The question caught Warren off guard. “Oh. Well. All I know to do is get out and fight for what I can believe in,” she said. “And, I mean, that’s really all I know how to do. I can’t change who I am. It’s too late. I’m kind of stuck with who I am.”  

Alec MacGillis is senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the August 23, 2012 issue of the magazine.