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Elizabeth Warren's once surging campaign mixes it up as she faces a winter cold front

CNN logo CNN 12/5/2019 By Gregory Krieg, CNN
Elizabeth Warren standing in front of a crowd: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks at the Liberty and Justice Celebration on November 1, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. © Scott Olson/Getty Images Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks at the Liberty and Justice Celebration on November 1, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa.

Elizabeth Warren is trying something different.

As she took the mic in Marion, Iowa, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Warren told the audience they were in for a little "experiment." She would be giving a Reader's Digest version of her stump speech, cutting it down to just a few minutes, before opening up the room for a more intimate and robust version of her typical question-and-answer sessions. A day later, during a visit to Iowa City, she did the same.

After a summer surge vaulted Warren into the top tier of the Democratic presidential primary and, by mid-October, placed her atop a handful of early-voting state polls, the Massachusetts senator has entered the campaign's wintry dog days on the back foot. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has seized the lead in Iowa and a recent national survey from Quinnipiac, which also saw Buttigieg on the up, showed that he was syphoning support primarily from one candidate: Warren.

Despite the setbacks, and at least a couple days playing around with her town hall rundown, the campaign has shown no signs of making any wholesale break from its long-standing strategy. But, as seen over 48 hours in Iowa, there has been a move to open her up a bit to voters -- in the flesh and through a recent uptick in national media engagement.

On Wednesday, she was in New York City for a hat trick of media appearances -- including "The Tonight Show" with Jimmy Fallon, Lawrence O'Donnell's MSNBC program, and a sitdown with Bloomberg TV's Joe Weisenthal. Those spots followed a recent viral visit with Showtime's Desus and Mero. (Her problem-solving skills proved useful as the trio "escaped" a haunted submarine.)

A campaign aide also told CNN that Warren's husband, Bruce Mann, the mostly media-shy Harvard professor, will soon begin stumping for her on his own. His first stop will come next week in New Hampshire.

On that Sunday night in Iowa, Warren ended up taking a dozen questions from the crowd. At one point, the politics of the day took a backseat to something much different.

A young woman, anxious about the prospect of coming out as LGBT to her extended family, asked if "there was ever a time in your life where somebody you really looked up to maybe didn't accept you as much?" -- and how Warren "dealt" with it.

The candidate locked eyes with the teen and, in raw terms she rarely discusses in public, spoke about the end of her first marriage, when she was in her early 20s, and the pain of delivering the news to her mother.

"She wanted me to marry well and I really tried, and it just didn't work out," Warren said, her voice breaking. "And there came a day when I had to call her and say, 'This is over. I can't make it work.' And I heard the disappointment in her voice. I knew how she felt about it. But I also knew it was the right thing to do."

Afterward, Warren and Raelyn, a high school senior, embraced. In that very public, yet personal moment, Warren had been whispering in her ear, "We've got it. We're going to be OK. You're going to get through this. You're going to be good."

Dealing with Medicare for All

In Marion, most of the audience's queries, though, had followed a more conventional script, hitting on topics from impeachment to, of course, "Medicare for All." One apparently skeptical voter mixed some advice into a question about Warren's health care plan.

"Is (Medicare for All) going to be an option for people, or is it not?," she asked, before adding: "I kind of feel like you would get more people on your side if it was an option."

Warren took the question, and her time -- "I know it's wonky but hang in here with me for a minute," she began -- in spelling out the details of her two-step plan.

It was a snippet of the ongoing debate over single-payer health insurance, which over the past months, has further escalated and become more complicated as industry interests and moderate Democratic candidates ramp up their own campaign against it. The issue has bedeviled Warren, who famously pledged her support at the first debate in Miami, but only got pressed with the usual, stickier questions -- about funding and the transition -- after she shot up in the polls.

During the October debate in Ohio, Warren was hammered by moderates like Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar for refusing to offer more details on Medicare for All. The candidate with a "plan" for everything wouldn't, on stage or in the days afterward, go much beyond her key talking point -- that the middle class costs would go down -- when asked for more specifics.

When she eventually gave in to the pressure, releasing a financing plan in November, the same critics who had spent weeks demanding details laughed off her cost estimate as unfeasibly low and painted the new funding mechanism, which didn't include a payroll tax, as a cynical political document.

A few weeks later, after previously suggesting she didn't see "any reason" to change the transition plan offered in Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' Medicare for All legislation, Warren did just that -- and effectively breaking up the bill into two pieces, a step that angered and, more often, confused some single-payer advocates.

Sanders never publicly criticized Warren's decision, but he did -- hours after she made her new plan public -- announce during a visit to California where he accepted the endorsement of National Nurses United, the passionately pro-Medicare for All union, that he would introduce his bill -- the whole thing -- "during the first week of our presidency."

Wendell Potter, the former health insurance executive who now leads a group called "Medicare For All Now," said that some of the backlash from the left, and any broader sense that Warren was backing off her support, might have been mitigated if Warren's team had communicated more clearly with pro-Medicare for All groups, including those -- like the nurses -- that either don't support her campaign or remain uncommitted.

"These folks have been in this effort for many, many years," Potter said. "Some of them were just perplexed. They didn't know, I guess, in advance what she was doing on this transition plan and (when that happens), you read more into it than would've been the case had there been maybe more communications with the advocacy organizations."

Undecided in Iowa

But even if her Medicare for All positioning has frustrated some, or depleted trust among diehard progressives, the more imminent threat to Warren's ambitions comes from her right, in the form of Buttigieg. This past weekend in Iowa, more than a dozen voters -- all at Warren events -- told CNN that they were undecided ahead of the caucuses. Some mentioned Biden, but nearly all of the uncommitted attendees suggested Buttigieg and Warren were their favorites. The same dynamic became clear in recent interviews voters in New Hampshire and even South Carolina, where a number of potential Buttigieg supporters also said they were considering Warren.

Before an event in Waterloo on Saturday, Chris Murphy, who made the short drive down from Cedar Falls, said she had been "impressed with Elizabeth from the get-go, because I kind of identify with her story as far as being a university professor and doing what she felt is right." But the 67-year-old also named Buttigieg, who, despite concerns about his electability, "makes a lot of common sense and he has a message that resonates with me."

The decision, Murphy said, would come down to two issues at the center of debate right now in Iowa and around the country: health care and higher education. And, despite her affection for the candidate, Warren's more ambitious positions were giving her pause.

"I know she has changed (her Medicare for All plan) recently, which some people say there's a flip-flop, but if she has re-evaluated things, that's good because people need to reevaluate all the time," Murphy said, expressing some doubt over Warren's ability to push her plans through Congress. "So if she moves more to the center on health care and the free education too -- it's too extreme, the free college tuition. We don't need it 'for all.' We need to get it on a graduated scale according to income."

Despite the criticism, Warren has shown no sign of backing off her core message or the plans that, so many months ago, gave her campaign its initial lift. Recent polling has underscored the broad popularity of the wealth tax she would use to fund her education platform.

"If there are people running for president who think it's more important to protect the two cents of the millionaires and billionaires, I'm ready to have that fight," Warren said after an event Saturday night in Chicago, passing up the chance -- as she would again in Iowa the next day -- to fire back directly at Buttigieg.

Instead, Warren appears to be banking on what many seasoned operatives view as her top-notch ground game in Iowa to deliver for her when the time comes. In a recent interview with former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe on his "Campaign HQ" podcast, Beto O'Rourke's former campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon, also an Obama campaign vet, testified to its strength.

"I have been really impressed by the organization that Elizabeth Warren has built on the ground," O'Malley Dillon said. "Her team (in Iowa) is very strong. They're just doing the work every day, and I think that that's just been apparent from the start."

That analysis was echoed by another former campaign hand in Iowa, who told CNN said that, while it was clear that Buttigieg is now doing well in the state after a stretch of favorable media coverage, Warren remains in a strong position.

"Obviously with any campaign you want to be riding high the entire time but caucusgoers are notoriously fickle, they want to be courted," the strategist, who asked to speak on the condition of anonymity because they are in contact with some 2020 campaigns, said. "I think whether someone has a good couple of months in the national press is going to resonate here and we're seeing that with Buttigieg."

"If I were on (the Warren campaign)," the strategist added, "I'd be comfortable in the position they're in," the operative said. "They've developed a very solid operation here."

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