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Warren walks fine line on Occupy movement

Backs message, avoids close ties

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By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / October 26, 2011

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A widely circulated video for Occupy Wall Street features rousing marchers beating on drums, grainy videos vilifying former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, and a singular voice, held up as a clear-speaking hero: Elizabeth Warren.

The video, filled with file footage of a Warren interview, has been viewed nearly 185,000 times since it was posted on YouTube on Oct. 3 and is one of many indications that some in the movement consider Warren, a Massachusetts candidate for the Senate, their standard-bearer.

Warren’s anti-Wall Street rhetoric has paralleled almost perfectly many of the grievances voiced by protesters in New York, Boston, and elsewhere. The striking similarities suggest Warren could become the first senator whose candidacy is driven by the emerging Occupy Wall Street movement, just as Florida Republican senate candidate Marco Rubio was propelled by the Tea Party in 2010.

But Warren’s relationship with the Occupy Wall Street movement has been hard to pin down. She has embraced it to the extent that it comports with her message. Yet she has been careful to avoid public images of herself among the tents and has stopped short of taking the protesters’ side during occasional clashes with police.

Warren has visited the tent city in Boston just once, without advertising it on her public schedule, avoiding television cameras in a highly unpredictable environment. Her top opponent for the Democratic nomination, Alan Khazei, beat her to Dewey Square by almost two weeks.

In an interview published yesterday on the Daily Beast website, Warren took her most aggressively supportive tone to date, claiming substantial credit for the writings and views that Occupy Wall Street protests have amplified across the country.

“I created much of the intellectual foundation for what they do,’’ she told the website. “I support what they do.’’

But in an interview Friday with the Globe, she answered less forcefully when asked whether she considered herself part of the movement.

“I’ve been speaking out against Wall Street for a very long time,’’ she said.

“I’m not going to stop,’’ she continued. “That is the movement.’’

She also emphasized that the demonstrators must respect the rule of law.

Warren spoke at length about her encounter with a police officer who was guarding the protest. The officer, she said, told her that he sympathized with the protesters because he was also part of the “99 percent’’ of Americans who are not among the wealthy.

Warren recalled how the officer said he wanted to “coach the protesters to make sure they were doing it in a way that stayed within the law.’’

Republican Scott Brown walked a similar fine line with the Tea Party movement, which initially embraced him as the critical 41st vote against President Obama’s health care plan, but has since soured on him as he has crossed party lines. Brown’s comments have expressed support for the Tea Party’s fiscal conservatism, but he has avoided attending some rallies.

The Occupy movement still carries great risk for Democrats, who are wary of embracing the volatile protests and some of its more radical elements, yet eager to show they are in touch with the nation’s economic woes. One of Bill Clinton’s former pollsters who surveyed demonstrators in New York has warned Democrats that a close association with the protesters could alienate moderate voters.

At least one Occupy participant said he understood Democrats’ reluctance to embrace the movement.

“If I were a politician, I’d be tentative about it, too,’’ said Bil Lewis, 59, a computer scientist from Cambridge who has been attending the Boston protest for two weeks.

Lewis pointed to the range of activity and people at the encampment, a mix that would not fit into an easy political narrative.

It’s also not a given that protesters will embrace Warren. Lewis and others said there is little talk of her there.

Emerson College student Hannah Wallace, 19, has camped for two weeks at the site and said Warren could potentially serve as the movement’s political voice, but quickly added that “it’s going to be hard to get everybody to agree on having a face.’’

Sarah Sobieraj, a Tufts University sociology professor who studies politics, media, and social movements, said the Occupy protesters are frustrated with electoral politics.

“If they were going to find a candidate it would be Warren,’’ she said. “She sounds a lot like they do. She gets the same frustration and gets very vocal that no one’s been held accountable for the financial improprieties that have been so costly.’’

But movement members have a variety of aims, some of which could be tough for a mainstream politician trying to win over independent voters, as Warren must do if she wins the nomination and is to defeat Brown. The Occupy Boston website, for example, lists resolutions passed at its assembly calling for “global regime change.’’ Warren’s campaign said yesterday that she does not agree with the group on all issues.

A poll conducted earlier this month by Douglas Schoen of 198 Occupy Wall Street participants at Zuccotti Park in New York found a diversity of views, starting with political party allegiance: 32 percent Democrat, 6 percent Libertarian, 6 percent Socialist, 5 percent anarchist, with a hodgepodge making up the rest.

Thirty-one percent said they would support violence to achieve their goals, according to the poll. Sixty-five percent of those surveyed said they agree the government “has a moral responsibility to guarantee health care, college education, and a secure retirement for all, no matter what cost.’’

Asked whether she agreed with that statement, Warren did not respond directly, saying “the things I stand for are clear,’’ before discussing her advocacy for reforming the way Americans pay for college.

Schoen, who has conducted polls for both Clinton and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, warned in a recent Wall Street Journal column that Democrats should be cautious about the Occupy movement. In an interview with the Globe, he said he would give Warren the same advice.

“She’s going to be in a close, competitive election with Scott Brown,’’ Schoen said. “If she needs to go to the North Shore, the South Shore, Western Massachusetts looking for votes, I wouldn’t say tying in to Occupy Boston is something I’d recommend to her. But there’s probably less risk for her in Massachusetts than for any other Democrat running in a marginal race.’’

Khazei portrayed a more conciliatory group of protesters than Schoen’s research suggests in recounting his visit to Occupy Boston. He said he was surprised how many protesters told him they were looking for common ground and more action in Washington.

“It’s too early to tell where this will go when you have this many people in the streets,’’ he said. “I’m hopeful that these pleas will be heard.’’

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.