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Inside Scoop: Can Elizabeth Warren Really Win?

It's Massachusetts' fickle independents who'll decide her high-stakes showdown with Scott Brown. Here's a look at what they think of her so far.

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Their political vagueness disappeared once they started talking about housing, their daily bread and butter. Jackie was appalled by how badly the banks were dealing with foreclosures. No one in the banks answered phones; no one explained policies or practices. They were getting away with, almost literally, murder—a point she illustrated by telling the story of a client who was selling her house because she had had an accident at work, broke her spine, went right back to work and as a result was now almost entirely disabled. The banks wouldn’t modify her loan. It was unnecessarily cruel. Jackie was deeply disappointed in Obama, who had not come through on his promise to help with loan modifications.

Michael was incensed at the banks’ greed. “You paid twenty years of mortgage payments on that house,” he explained. “The banks earned what they needed off that twenty years of mortgage payments. Now you’re in trouble; you refinanced the house…that bank turns around and says you haven’t made your payments for ninety days—ninety days!—and they’re going to foreclose on your butt. They have twenty years of mortgage payments. That house is paid for. The bank has generated considerable profits. But for them, it’s no longer financially viable, because they’re not getting enough…. Is that right? That’s not right.”

These two lived smack in the middle of Potterville, but they didn’t yet know they should be voting for Warren. Will they by November?

* * *

Warren’s campaign has developed some weaknesses. On television, she’s starting to look a little stiff and overly focused on her messaging—no longer as loose and lively as she was before she had to campaign. Through the chilly medium of the screen, her earnest enthusiasm can feel a little condescending. When she calls herself a “fancy-pants professor,” the faux-humility can be off-putting instead of endearing. And even inside the Boston/Cambridge bubble, I’ve heard worries about whether Warren is just too far left to elect. Will campaigning calcify how she comes across, as she strains to stay precisely on message? Brown has whatever Reagan had—that genial feeling of always talking with you. Will Brown’s savvy strategy of positioning himself as the voice of independence and reason succeed? Or will the passion of the local Democratic activists carry Warren to victory?

We all know that anything can happen in a race that still has seven more months to run, especially as the news media begin to focus on a candidate’s every breath. We know that anything can happen in world events, changing voters’ concerns and moods. Scott Brown has more money, but Warren is raising more money. The right despises her as much as the left adores her, which may add to Brown’s coffers later in the game.

Right now, as Warren and Brown meet voters, they are telling their stories as political parables, loaded with ideas about opportunity versus just deserts, social investment versus making your own way, fairness versus the free market. The ordinary Massachusetts voter—the kind who doesn’t tune in until the last minute—will have to choose between two story lines. They will talk about it this way: he’s a small-town Wrentham boy who solves problems based on facts, while she’s a leftist ideologue from Harvard. Or they will talk about it this way: he’s a lightweight with a pretty face and a truck; she’s a real person who will fight off the banks and others trying to ruin the middle class. They will assess which one is more likable and sincere. They will (or won’t) be pulled to the polls by more politically motivated neighbors. In such haphazard ways, Massachusetts independents will decide one of the most closely watched and possibly most expensive races of the 2012 campaign, outside the presidency. And right now, I wouldn’t risk a bet on either Elizabeth Warren or Scott Brown.

 
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