'I Wasn't Born at Harvard': Elizabeth Warren Meets the Voters

Now running for the U.S. Senate, the consumer advocate conservatives love to hate turns out to have a deft touch on the stump

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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- "Could we get a picture? Let's do a picture! I love doing pictures!" Elizabeth Warren exclaimed. It was Day One of her U.S. Senate campaign and about Minute Five of her visit to The Student Prince, a German bierhaus bedecked with thousands of beer mugs. And to my surprise, the bespectacled Harvard professor seemed in her element.

I confess I was among the many who wondered if Warren would come across as the out of touch Ivy-Leaguer that Republicans are trying to portray her as -- and curious if, like the ill-fated Martha Coakley, she would be terrible at politics. Maybe it's rash to make a judgment so early in her campaign, but Wednesday's appearance suggested that if she wins the Democratic nomination, she could give Republican Sen. Scott Brown quite the race.

Warren has no barn-coat, battered-truck "schtick," as one voter called Brown's everyman campaign persona. Nor does she plan to pose for a nude centerfold, as Brown did for Cosmopolitan while a young man. "I'm not competing there," she told me with a laugh.

But she will be competitive in ways that people may not expect. First, Warren seems to enjoy campaigning and demonstrates as much warmth and "relatability" as any seasoned pro on the trail. Hardly anyone went untouched of the dozens waiting to greet her at The Student Prince, the fifth and last stop of her announcement tour. I mean that literally -- she dispensed hugs and arm-pats to nearly everyone, clasped many hands with both of hers, and seems to have perfected the art of intense eye-contact, the kind that makes people think they are the only person in the room.

Few can match Brown's gripping biography, from his upbringing amid alcoholism, poverty and domestic violence, to his education at Tufts and Boston College law school, to his careers in modeling, the military and politics. Yet Warren, a native of Oklahoma, also has a compelling tale that she often telescopes into a few vivid sentences. After her father had a heart attack, she says, her family existed on "the ragged edge" of the middle class. "We lost our car. We almost lost a house," she told one man at The Student Prince. She later told reporters that she was babysitting by age 9, waiting tables at 13, married at 19, a mother and elementary school teacher at 22.

As for Republicans who dismiss her as a liberal academic, "I grew up hanging on to the edge of the middle class by my fingernails," Warren said. "All I can say is I've been there. I've lived this. My family lived one pink slip, one bad diagnosis away from falling off the economic cliff. Yeah, I've got a fancy job at Harvard and I've gotta tell you, I'm proud of that job. I worked hard to get there. I wasn't born at Harvard. I was born to a family that had to work for everything it's got."

Brown cultivated independents and a moderate image en route to his stunning victory in the special election for Ted Kennedy's seat early last year. His voting record is a pastiche that offers ammunition for both parties. On the conservative side of the ledger, he opposed the DREAM Act and the Affordable Care Act and voted against Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan and Craig Becker, named to the National Labor Relations Board. On the other hand, he voted against GOP Rep. Paul Ryan's controversial budget cuts, for the Dodd-Frank Wall Street regulation law and for the repeal of the military's don't ask, don't tell policy on gay troops.

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Jill Lawrence is a national correspondent at National Journal. She was previously a columnist at Politics Daily, national political correspondent at USA Today and national political writer at the Associated Press.

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