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Joan Vennochi

If Warren wants to race, she should leave the gate

(John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / September 4, 2011

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BEFORE ELIZABETH Warren can burst anyone else’s bubble, she has to get out of her own.

On the lush backyard of a magnificent North Shore estate, a handpicked crowd of Democratic activists gathered recently to take their measure of the Harvard Law professor and consumer-rights advocate who is preparing to run for US Senate. According to one of those present, they pressed her repeatedly on a key concern: Is she tough enough to take on Republican Senator Scott Brown?

Of course, she said yes. But Warren’s true test begins when she leaves the safe haven of invitation-only meet-and-greets, and hits the live campaign trail. That’s when the political world finds out if she’s another Charlie Baker - great on paper, but not so great as a first-time candidate running against a charming incumbent. And before Warren gets to the general election, she first must win her party’s primary. A half-dozen other Democratic challengers have announced their candidacy or said they are weighing a primary run.

Warren is generating positive buzz from devout liberals who previously swooned over Michael Dukakis and Deval Patrick. But at least one powerful Democrat is openly skeptical about her chances. Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who knows something about retail politics, said about Warren, “You have to to sell yourself to the people . . . The media can’t make you. . . You have to be out there and squeeze the flesh and see how they feel.’’

For the past few weeks, Warren has been squeezing the pre-selected flesh of grassroots activists across the state. Her carefully controlled roll-out is partly aimed at reassuring wary Democrats she’s not another Martha Coakley. Fairly or unfairly, that’s now shorthand for a female candidate who goes from tough, smart, accomplished primary victor to weak, out-of-touch loser of Ted Kennedy’s seat.

Ironically, one iconic moment that came to symbolize Coakley’s failed campaign occurred when the candidate made a crack suggesting she was not wild about standing in the cold shaking miscellaneous hands outside Fenway Park. Warren is shaking hands, but they have been anything but miscellaneous. Even her broader debut, at the Labor Day breakfast sponsored by unions, will address a traditional Democratic constituency.

“In the early stages, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for her to have some frank, direct, honest conversations, without microphones stuck in her face,’’ said Doug Rubin, the Democratic consultant Warren hired to run her campaign.

But the tactic opened her up to criticism. In a blog post that was widely circulated in political circles, New Bedford reporter Jack Spillane described her as a “frightened sparrow’’ and “hothouse flower’’ who was “afraid to even make eye contact with a reporter wanting simply to ask her questions.’’

Brown’s campaign strategy does not feature much press repartee, either. Instead, it recently included the mocking of Alan Khazei, another Democratic Senate candidate, via a

“CrazyKhazei’’ T witter account set up by Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior Brown adviser. Fehrnstrom brushed it off as “levity’’ and never apologized. Neither did Brown, who also claimed he knew nothing about it. It’s a little taste of the hardball to come during the 2012 Senate campaign.

Warren knows how to stare down Republicans. She did it in Washington, when she led a panel that monitored the banking bailout and then established the new federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau at President Obama’s behest. But, after Republicans said she was too hostile toward business to effectively lead the agency, Obama blinked and declined to nominate her. That raises severals issues: Will toughness on the issues translate into toughness on the campaign trail? How tough is too tough, especially for a female candidate in a state that has yet to elect one to the Senate? And is toughness what voters actually want?

Winning takes the ability to connect with citizens on a human level. Coakley, a longtime prosecutor, didn’t lose to Brown because she wasn’t tough enough. She lost because voters saw her as a pampered political insider who didn’t want to stand outside in the cold to grip their hands. Brown became the candidate who understood the problems of average people.

That’s the battle Warren must fight and win, beyond the back yards of liberal diehards.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.