The moderator asked for the audience to quiet down and the candidates to come up on stage. Three men took their places, smiling and shaking hands, to no particular notice. Then Elizabeth Warren came up, and the crowd went crazy.
The moderator asked for the audience to quiet down and the candidates to come up on stage.
Three men took their places, smiling and shaking hands, to no particular notice. Then Elizabeth Warren came up, and the crowd went crazy.
The auditorium at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., was packed with enthusiastic Democrats. They are fired up over the state of the country, and they are eager to knock Republican Sen. Scott Brown out of “the people’s seat” in Massachusetts.
Most of them were excited about Warren, whom the national media, national Republicans and deep-pocketed organizations assume will be the Democratic nominee.
The problem is that there are four other candidates on the stage, all waging serious campaigns, all virtually ignored. If you can name any of them, you are among a distinct minority of the electorate.
The Dec. 6 debate in Easton, at which I was one of three panelists, was not televised. Political debates just don’t bring in ratings and advertisers, especially nine months before the election. That’s also a problem, and not just for the four candidates who haven’t retreated before the Warren tide. Those candidates deserve more attention than they are getting.
There’s Tom Conroy, who has the chiseled good looks and perfect smile of a candidate out of central casting. A Massachusetts state representative, Conroy has a background in government and business. He speaks with passion and precision, jabbing Brown at every opportunity.
This summer, Conroy hiked the length of Massachusetts, shaking hands all along the way. He got a healthy workout and a good tan. What he didn’t get was media attention or political traction.
There’s also Jim King, a former federal prosecutor and longtime corporate lawyer. He spoke well on questions of law and policy at the debate, but if his unfinished campaign website is any indication, he’s not exactly running at a gallop.
There’s Herb Robinson, a software engineer from Newton, Mass., who describes himself as a “the socially liberal and fiscally responsible candidate.” He brings an engineer’s perspective to issues like energy and climate.
There’s Marisa DeFranco, who may have been the surprise of the debate. An immigration attorney, DeFranco is a pistol. She’s young. She’s pro-union, pro-immigration, pro-Occupy and proud of it. She’s a scrapper with sense of humor who wants Democrats to stop accommodating and start fighting back.
Then there’s Elizabeth Warren, who came in the front-runner and left the front-runner. She is informed, she is articulate, she is passionate. She has a record of fighting Wall Street lobbyists and their Washington partners and winning. Her longstanding advocacy for middle-class families is the perfect theme for this political season.
She’s also charming. There’s a Midwestern niceness to Warren’s demeanor. From her seat at the end of the row, she applauded each of her opponents. When they spoke, she looked at them and nodded in encouragement, like they were old friends chatting in her living room.
One question going into this campaign was whether Warren, who has never run for anything before, could be an effective retail politician. A lot of smart people aren’t good at shaking hands with strangers day in and day out, listening to their stories, making them feel like you really care.
The best politicians relish that human touch. They love hearing people’s stories. Bill Clinton would stay up most of the night listening to anyone’s stories, whether a prime minister or the counter worker at a donut shop. Ted Kennedy asked his aides to go looking for individuals in trouble whom his office could help. Policy ideas engaged their minds, but it was the human touch that kept them going.
Republicans tried to answer the questions about Warren before she could, painting her as an aloof elitist from Harvard who couldn’t relate to ordinary people. But that stereotype crumbles on first contact with Warren’s soft smile, just-folks conversational style and blue eyes. Or even with her TV commercial, in which she speaks directly to the camera, using family photos to show her middle-class roots.
Not many candidates can narrate their own 60-second spots. That’s why they have actors touting their talking points. But Warren is a natural, reaching through the camera to forge a human connection.
She appears to be a natural politician as well. After the debate, she told me how invigorated she was by the time spent shaking hands in coffee shops and living rooms, listening to strangers tell their stories. And humbled, too.
“A woman came up to me the other day and said, ‘You know, I haven’t had work for a year and a half, but I want to give $10 to your campaign.’”
“This will sound corny,” she told me, “but it feels like democracy.”
Toward the end of the debate, I asked about the elephant in the room:
“Prof. Warren’s entry into this race was hotly anticipated and promoted by Democratic Party officials and activists, both in the state and nationwide. In name recognition, media attention, fundraising and the polls, she is miles ahead of the field.”
“What do you see as her vulnerabilities,” I asked the other four, “and what can you do to change the dynamic?”
The other four didn’t take the bait. They wouldn’t criticize Warren, either because they feared a backlash or because Warren’s been so nice to them. Only DeFranco raised her voice, and it was to react to Warren’s huge advantage in fund raising, both in state and nationally.
“Money is not going to win this race,” she said. “Democrats need to get real and talk to people on the ground.”
“Marisa is right,” Warren responded. “I may get outspent, but I won’t get out-worked. I’m out there every day.”
Given Warren’s advantages in access to paid and free media, the only way one of the opponents can beat her is by winning over voters face-to-face, one handshake at a time. But they are likely to find that Warren has already beat them to the coffee shop and charmed most every voter she’s met.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the Daily News in Masscahusetts, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.wickedlocal.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at email@example.com.