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With Warren Comes Hope: Is That Enough?

Massachusetts Democrats see the current field of candidates angling to take on Sen. Scott Brown (R) as deeply lacking. So it’s not a surprise some Bay State Democrats are excited about the potential of an Elizabeth Warren candidacy.

But the tenacious consumer advocate and academic, who is taking steps to run, faces a tough fight that will attract national attention given that control of the Senate is on the line.

Warren, untested as a political candidate, will have to win a long, contentious primary against at least seven others. She is up against history in a state that has never elected a female Senator or governor. And, most importantly, to win she’ll have to convince blue-collar, conservative Democrats — as well as independents who made up the majority of registered voters in 2010 — that she is in touch with their most pressing concerns.

She made an effort on that front Thursday in a column on a Massachusetts political blog. “Today, it’s harder than ever for middle class families in Massachusetts and across the country to get by,” Warren wrote at Blue Mass Group, all but declaring her strong consideration of a Senate bid.

“I left Washington, but I don’t plan to stop fighting for middle class families,” wrote Warren, who served as assistant to the president and special adviser to the secretary of the Treasury on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau until recently.

As she prepares for a bid, Warren is working with consultants Doug Rubin and Kyle Sullivan of Northwind Strategies, a person familiar with the matter told Roll Call. Both men have previously worked for Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D).

Massachusetts Democrats said serious questions remain about how effective a candidate she could be and whether she can win over voters in places such as Lowell, an old mill city of 100,000 people.

In 2008, Lowell residents voted 2-to-1 for Barack Obama. In a January 2010 special election, the city went 52 percent for Brown, then a little-known Republican state Senator.

State Sen. Eileen Donoghue (D), a former Lowell mayor whose district includes the city, said Democrats there are “on the more conservative side, working-class people, very much meat and potatoes.” She said Warren, whom she does not know well, would be a “tough sell” to her constituents.

“She may have a tough time relating and connecting to working-class Democrats,” Donoghue said.

Strategists said her academic background could be a political deterrent.

“I don’t think we beat Scott Brown with a Harvard professor,” said Scott Ferson, a Boston-based Democratic strategist who was Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) press secretary in the 1990s.

“Elizabeth Warren is a very impressive person,” Democratic consultant Conor Yunits said. “I just don’t see how she gets elected.”

Last year Brown won because voters related to him. “They could look at him and say, ‘This guy gets me,’” he said. “I don’t see how they are going to look at a Harvard professor from Cambridge and say, ‘Yes I relate to this woman. She gets me.’”

But other Democratic consultants, including Mary Anne Marsh, said Warren was the perfect candidate to appeal to independents by saying she went to Washington to “protect the little guy” — and did.

“The Elizabeth Warren who could beat Scott Brown is the one who is going to say that she went down there and fought against the Senate that he became a part of, fought against the Republicans in the Senate that he votes with more than 90 percent of the time, fought to protect people from all the things that have turned this economy upside down,” Marsh said.

Brown adviser Eric Fehrnstrom told Roll Call in a statement that his boss is popular “because he’s viewed as a hard-working regular guy who is willing to reach across the aisle to solve problems and get things done.”

Brown has joined with Democrats on several key issues, including the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the financial reform measure that established the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which Warren worked to create.

Women have had a notoriously difficult time running and winning statewide office in Massachusetts. In addition to women losing statewide races, only four women have represented the Bay State in the U.S. House.

“I’m the only woman to serve in Congress from Massachusetts in 30 years,” Rep. Niki Tsongas (D) recently told Roll Call.

Should Warren prevail in a Sept. 18, 2012, primary, she must emerge with the money, energy, momentum and right political identity to go up against Brown with less than two months to go. And Democrats fret that Brown has already proved he can win a short general election campaign with a relatively undefined opponent.

Warren’s appeal to national Democrats and liberal activists raises expectations for her fundraising potential.

Because there is not yet a candidate for the state party to coalesce behind — and might not be for some time — the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s focus is on defining Brown.

State Democratic Party Chairman John Walsh told Roll Call that Democrats “screwed up” in 2010 by allowing Brown to define his race with the message that “Washington is a mess and Scott Brown has got a truck and coat.”

Walsh said that if the race is defined by that narrative again, “Scott Brown’s got a chance to win this thing.”

Brown beat state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) 52 percent to 47 percent in the 2010 special election, riding a wave of dissatisfaction with the economy and the political status quo and promising to oppose the Democrats’ plan to reform health insurance.

Walsh believes Democrats will unseat Brown if they paint him as anything but an independent voice.

“He’s handsome and he still has the truck and the coat,” Walsh said. “But when he asked you to give him a shot for two years down in Washington, now he’s coming back and asking you for a six-year extension, you got to really look at what he’s been doing there.”

Walsh argued that when Bay State residents take a thoughtful look at Brown’s record, they will find he is “voting against the interests of Massachusetts.”

For the next few months, Warren likely will focus her efforts on introducing herself to the Bay State as a political candidate for the first time.

A Democrat close to Warren believes she will connect with voters as they get to know her as someone with “a track record that’s pretty impressive.”

But the Democrat said the bottom line is that Warren “has to go out there and earn this thing.”

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