Elizabeth Warren ‘crushed’ the debate. But is it too late?

  • >>Shane Goldmacher and Astead W Herndon, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-02-21 11:22:15 BdST

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Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) during an interview in the Spin Room following the Democratic presidential debate at the Paris Theater in Las Vegas, on Wednesday, Feb 19, 2020. The New York Times

Hours before Sen Elizabeth Warren would take the stage in front of the largest television audience in Democratic debate history, she was holed up in a Bellagio hotel suite outfitted with six podiums for her final practice session.

Her voice was hoarse from a cold that had left her team scrambling to find a solution: “elm bark” lozenges, teas and, eventually, a throat spray from a supporter who was an opera singer. But those worries mostly melted away as she landed line after line that would, a few hours later, help invigorate a stagnated candidacy. When that last dress rehearsal had wrapped, Warren’s advisers applauded her out of the room.

She carried that confidence across the Las Vegas Strip to the debate stage at the Paris Hotel that evening.

“So I’d like to talk about who we’re running against,” she would say in the opening minutes of the debate Wednesday night, “a billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians.’ And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”

It was a blunt, lacerating and striking reversal for a candidate who had been studiously hands-off in her rhetoric about most of her rivals for the past year. And her attacks were not limited just to Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York City mayor, as she drew sharp contrasts with her other rivals with a newfound purpose and urgency. The display recalled the fighting version of Warren that is memorialised in a glass trophy cabinet at her Oklahoma City high school, where she was a champion debater.

The performance, coming three days before the Nevada caucuses, was a transformation that allies and advisers had been arguing was plainly necessary after a fourth-place finish in New Hampshire had left her candidacy at risk of fading into irrelevance. And for a team that had long agonised over how Warren’s gender would affect how attacks from her would be perceived, the time for caution had passed and the moment for assertion had arrived.

“I’m not ready to go away!” Warren told supporters in North Las Vegas on Thursday morning.

Her performance paid immediate dividends. She raised almost $1 million before she stepped off the stage and more than $5 million in less than 20 hours — shattering her past record for a 24-hour period and more than tripling her single biggest day in all of 2019.

Late Thursday, Warren’s campaign disclosed the state of its finances as of Feb. 1, and it was grim. The campaign spent $2 for every $1 it raised in January and, fearing a cash-flow crunch, arranged for a $3 million line of credit and tapped $400,000 of it. Warren entered February with among the least money in the bank, only $2.3 million, of any candidate.

Those figures underscore the importance of a debate showing that even advisers to Warren’s rivals acknowledged was impactful in the hours afterward. “Good performance,” said Jeff Weaver, a top adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders. “Good for her.”

And while Warren’s opening lines had been carefully rehearsed, the most searing exchange of the night was improvised, according to her aides. Warren pressed Bloomberg about the nondisclosure agreements that female former employees at his companies had signed, so voters could know “what’s lurking out there,” flustering the former mayor into perhaps his worst moments onstage. He visibly rolled his eyes as she summed up his defence as “I’ve been nice to some women.”

The question emerging from her strong performance was whether it was both too late for Warren’s campaign in Nevada, where early voting had wrapped up a day earlier with 75,000 votes already cast, and for Warren in general.

”I think Nevadans had been feeling squishy about her candidacy,” said Maria Urbina, political director for Indivisible and former staff member for Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, who attended the debate. “But after the debate they left feeling grounded and ready to caucus for her.”

Everyone she had spoken to afterward agreed: “Warren crushed it.”

The debate in New Hampshire was a turning point for Warren’s team. She was flat, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar soared, and the New Hampshire results reflected the performances, with Klobuchar surging past Warren into third place.

Convinced that she needed to be a central figure in the Nevada debate, the campaign’s brain trust had made the decision to focus their fire on Bloomberg in Nevada even before he qualified for the debate, which came only the day before. A multibillionaire plunging unprecedented sums of money into television ads proved the perfect foil for Warren, a populist who has centered her platform on the corrosive and corrupting role of money on American politics.

“Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another,” as Warren said in her opening statement, trying to dismantle the aura of electability that Bloomberg had created for himself with his spending.

Warren had all but telegraphed her strategy of using Bloomberg as a stand-in for Trump. In a tweet Tuesday, she previewed how “primary voters curious about how each candidate will take on Donald Trump can get a live demonstration of how we each take on an egomaniac billionaire.”

Bloomberg was unprepared anyway.

As she pushed for the total number of nondisclosure agreements — “How many is that?” she asked twice — Bloomberg diminished the sealed accusations, saying, “Maybe they didn’t like a joke I told.” Later, he said the women entered the agreements “consensually”; Warren said they had been “muzzled.”

Working to Warren’s advantage was a viewership that dwarfed the previous debates: nearly 20 million people watched on television and another 13 million streamed the event online, NBC News and MSNBC announced Thursday, a record for a Democratic primary debate.

“I think she’s back in a big way,” said Adam Jentleson, a Democratic strategist and outspoken Warren supporter who said he was among those pushing for a more aggressive approach. “Doing it in the debate that broke all records for viewership is probably a good time to do it,” he said.

By the next morning, the Warren campaign was basking in the post-debate glow.

“What an incredible night last night!” Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas, a Warren surrogate, said at a canvass kickoff in North Las Vegas.

“She contrasted herself with Mike Bloomberg,” Castro said. The crowd laughed knowingly. “I know that’s an understatement.”

Warren bounded into the event with a whirlwind of fist pumps and energy. “Warren! Warren! Warren!” came the chants from the crowd. She ripped into Bloomberg anew for his support of stop-and-frisk policing tactics as mayor, his use of nondisclosure agreements and throwing around his money in general.

Afterward, Warren spoke with reporters and addressed the new infusion of big money aiding her: a brand-new super PAC, incorporated this week, that has booked $1 million in ads in Nevada and another $1 million in South Carolina, which votes the following week.

Warren had made her opposition to super PACs a central issue in her campaign but she stopped short of denouncing the new group, called Persist PAC, less than two weeks after she had challenged her opponents to stop taking such assistance. “Time to put your money where your mouth is,” she said then.

On Thursday, she told The New York Times: “I believe we should do a no super PAC primary. But that means no super PACs for everyone.”

Warren’s newfound support from a super PAC has already caught the eye of her rivals. Top aides to Sanders and Pete Buttigieg — each supported by outside entities themselves — remarked on the change Thursday, signaling a fight that may loom large in debates to come.

In Nevada, it was Warren who was on the offensive at every turn, especially on health care — the issue that has been politically vexing for her throughout this campaign.

In one stark exchange, Warren attacked both Buttigieg and Klobuchar in one swoop, saying their plans were inadequate and simplistic.

“Mr. Buttigieg really has a slogan that was thought up by his consultants to paper over a thin version of a plan that would leave millions of people unable to afford their health care,” she said. “It’s not a plan. It’s a PowerPoint. And Amy’s plan is even less. It’s like a Post-it note: ‘Insert plan here.’”

Her rhetorical howitzer across the stage left even the moderators stumped on whom to turn to for a response.

After the debate, when Warren rejoined her team, her voice was almost gone entirely, aides said. She was greeted backstage by her husband, Bruce, who did the talking. He said he whispered into her ear, “You were fabulous.”

© 2020 New York Times News Service