Elizabeth Warren makes fiery campaign debut in Iowa after a whirlwind kickoff week

Posted at 7:46 PM, Jan 04, 2019

Sen. Elizabeth Warren delivered her first live pitch to presidential primary voters in Iowa on Friday night with a signature and searing indictment of the powerful interests she blames for corrupting government and decimating the American working class.

The trip is an early test for the Massachusetts Democrat's growing political operation, which unveiled a slate of touted hires this week, and a candidate determined to show that her populist economic message can conjure up excitement for her campaign in Iowa's traditional proving grounds.

"This is the fight of our lives," Warren told an overflow crowd at an event space attached to a bowling alley in Council Bluffs, the first stop in a swing that will include at least four more over the weekend. "I am determined that we build an America where not just the children of rich people get a chance to build something, but where all of our children get a chance to build a real future. That's what I'm in this fight for."

During a question and answer session that followed her remarks, Warren was quizzed on where she thought the Democratic Party was headed in the run-up the 2020 election. After touting the public education -- and government investment in the economy -- that provided her a pathway to personal and professional successes, she boiled it down to a single issue.

"The fundamental question, the sole question," facing the party and voters, Warren said, is "who do we want government to work for?"

Warren's travels will first track the state's western border, taking her from Council Bluffs up to a Saturday event in Sioux City. Then it's a dash east to Storm Lake before setting out for Des Moines. Warren will also convene a conversation with female leaders in nearby Ankeny on Sunday morning.

The trip is her first here in more than four years -- an aide confirmed that her last visit to Iowa came in October 2014 to campaign for former Rep. Bruce Braley when he ran, unsuccessfully, for Senate against Republican Joni Ernst.

This time around, Warren took center stage.

With the the launch of a presidential exploratory committee on Monday, she effectively kicked off the 2020 primary more than 13 months before caucusgoers in Iowa will begin casting their votes. By Friday, she was standing in front of 500 people, according to a staffer -- 300 inside, 200 outside on a crisp western Iowa night -- pitching herself, and her message, as the antidote to growing economic inequity and a faltering health care system.

But she also faced at least one fraught question, from a former student who said she backed Warren's bid but worried that her former professor's support for abortion rights would sink her chances in the Midwest.

Warren greeted her old friend warmly, but dug in on her position.

"For me, this is a question about the role of law," she said. "I know that these are very hard personal family decisions. I think the role of government here is to back out. I think a woman makes a decision with her family, her priest, her doctor, the people the woman chooses, and I think that's what respects all of us the most."

Warren's remarks, which were briefly rendered almost inaudible when her mic lost power, included a call to volunteer and back a campaign she has pledged will not accept corporate cash.

"This is going to be a grass-roots campaign," Warren said. "I'm here to ask every one of you to be a part of this, anything you can do: Volunteer, take a sign, pitch in five bucks, any part of it."

Jumping out of the gate on the last day of 2018, before so many other likely candidates but only after hundreds of post-midterm election calls to grass-roots leaders in key early voting states including New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, allowed her to seize the national spotlight. Warren has since rolled out what is shaping up as an estimable staff, which includes alumni from the campaigns of former President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

"That she was able to hire some top-tier folks while having a really challenging month tells you something," Rebecca Katz, a progressive strategist and former aide to retired Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, told CNN. Those staffers "know Iowa better than anyone and they know that there's some magic there. The people who actually know Iowa understand that it's a long game and they understand who actually connects in a living room. And they see something special in Elizabeth Warren."

That slate also now includes Obama's former chief digital strategist, Joe Rospars, who had a lead role on both of the former president's campaigns. Rospars will oversee Warren's grass-roots mobilization, national operations and planning in the early states, according to two sources familiar with the staffing moves. Warren has also recruited Richard McDaniel, the former field and political director for Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jones and senior adviser to the young progressive Randall Woodfin's mayoral campaign in Birmingham.

Warren's team will hope this opening week -- Instagram live beer-slugging and tea-sipping included -- begins to dim the spotlight on what many Democrats viewed as an ill-advised attempt last year to prove her claims to Native American ancestry with a DNA test. She made the results, which confirmed her earlier statements, public in a five-and-a-half minute video released nearly 12 weeks ago.

But the process angered some tribal leaders and predictably failed to quiet President Donald Trump's mocking attacks, which he ramped up in a Fox News interview and on Twitter after her announcement on Monday.

Warren brushed off Trump's comments when asked about them by reporters Thursday on Capitol Hill but responded to a Politico story, which explored soon after her announcement the notion that she might be unlikable, with a cheeky tweet and fundraising email.

"If you get frustrated when commentators spend more time covering Elizabeth or any woman's 'likability' than her plans for huge, systemic change to make this country work for all of us," the appeal went, "do something productive about it." (For the purposes of the email, that meant donating $5 to Warren's cause.)

In an extended interview Wednesday with MSNBC, Warren warned against allowing super PACs and self-funding candidates to gain a foothold in the coming primary. The comments were an unmistakable shot across the gilded bows of billionaire potential candidates Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, and investor Tom Steyer.

Both men spent heavily to back Democrats during the midterm elections and have flirted -- not for the first time -- with runs of their own.

"I think this is a moment for all of the Democratic candidates as they come into the race to say: In a Democratic primary, we are going to link arms and we're going to grass-roots funding," Warren said, without naming names. "No to the billionaires."

Her allies at the Progressive Change Campaign Committee seized on the call, sending out an email that celebrated her "big challenge to other candidates" and provided links to pre-scripted tweets asking a dozen other contenders if they agreed that Democrats running for president should "say no to billionaire Super PACs, no to self-funding, and yes to grassroots-driven campaigns."

Warren has pushed ahead with that message, which has over more than a decade helped establish her particular place in the national political firmament, as she introduced herself anew to Democratic voters earlier this week.

In a video announcing her decision to form an exploratory committee, Warren did what other Democrats have in the past shied away from -- pointing specifically to the people, party and institutions she blames for hollowing out the American working class. She pledged to root out corruption in government and impose stricter regulations on Wall Street banks.

"These aren't 'cracks' that families are falling into; they are traps," Warren said. "America's middle class is under attack. How did we get here? Billionaires and big corporations decided they wanted more of the pie and they enlisted politicians to cut them a fatter slice."