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Warren’s US Senate campaign in debt

Newton mayor owes $22,777

Setti Warren has been touted as a rising political star. Setti Warren has been touted as a rising political star.
By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / July 21, 2011

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Setti Warren, the Newton mayor hoping to unseat Scott Brown in the US Senate, has begun his initial statewide campaign in debt, a sign he may be struggling to break out of a crowded Democratic field.

His first official campaign finance report, published online yesterday by the Federal Election Commission, shows that of $124,236 raised by June 30, only $54,736 remained in the bank to pay expenses.

But the campaign was also carrying a debt of $77,513, owed to a long list of consultants, putting it in the red by nearly $23,000 by the end of June.

Warren is trying to make the case that he is the best-equipped Democrat to challenge Brown, a Republican whose popularity ranks atop all state politicians in public opinion polls. Since Warren launched his campaign in May, the 40-year-old, first-term mayor has touted his credentials as a rising political figure who has worked previously as an aide to President Clinton and US Senator John F. Kerry.

Warren’s early financial struggles, while not fatal to his campaign, come at a crucial time for all the declared Democratic candidates. Fund-raisers and party activists are buzzing about whether Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard professor whose job as an adviser to President Obama is ending this month, will enter the race.

Elizabeth Warren, no relation to Setti Warren, would bring a national fund-raising network and star power among progressive activists, though little name recognition among the general public.

“When you have someone like that off-stage, who looks like they can come in and dominate the election, it provides a huge excuse for fund-raisers not to support you,’’ said Tad Devine, a Washington-based political consultant who is not involved in the Massachusetts race, but worked with Setti Warren on Kerry’s presidential campaign.

The other candidates - including City Year cofounder Alan Khazei, state Representative Thomas P. Conroy, and Bob Massie, a former candidate for lieutenant governor - are trying to convince top-level party activists and fund-raisers that they have the potential to recapture a seat that is a priority for a national Democratic Party eager to retain control of the Senate.

“I would obviously disagree that we’re not off to a good start,’’ said Charles Gilboy, Setti Warren’s spokesman. “We’re off to a strong start here, for a first-time statewide candidate.’’

Gilboy said the campaign is making investments to help improve Warren’s name recognition across the state. Indeed, $13,000 of the debt is owed to Virginia-based Putnam Partners, the firm that produced his introductory online video. The company produced Barack Obama’s 30-minute address to the nation during his 2008 campaign.

When Warren’s video debuted online May 9, the day he launched his run, his campaign manager said that he would pay the bill as soon as it came due. Gilboy said in a follow-up e-mail yesterday that Putnam has been paid since the reporting period closed June 30.

He argued that Warren’s popularity has jumped in public opinion polls. But some consultants warn that comparing polls with differing methodology is dicey for lesser-known candidates at this stage of a campaign.

They agreed that Warren’s early fund-raising difficulties were a setback, but disagreed on how serious.

Devine said that if Warren is investing money well now - conducting focus groups, building a social network, and performing the rigorous research needed to craft a clear path to victory - the debt will not matter, given the money that will flow to the nominee from the national Democratic Party. He and others said the next fund-raising quarter will be a more critical test.

But Dan Payne, a Boston-based media consultant, said relative newcomers like Warren will have trouble retaining the sophisticated consultants they need to chart a path to victory if they cannot raise enough money to pay their bills.

Conor Yunits, a consultant who chronicled the 2010 special election on a blog followed closely by insiders, said Warren needs a stronger introduction.

“Elements of the Democratic Party grabbed on to him and said: ‘Look, this is our rising talent. This is the anti-Martha Coakley,’ ’’ he said. “But I think there were plenty of other people who said, ‘Look, he’s been mayor of Newton for a week and a half. Let’s see what he can do.’ And I don’t think they’re impressed’’ with the first fund-raising report.

Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com.