CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Elizabeth Warren took the prime-time stage for her first Democratic convention Wednesday to deliver a populist attack against Wall Street, in a speech intended to put the Democratic Party on the side of the middle class.
“People feel like the system is rigged against them,” she told delegates at the Democratic National Convention. “And here’s the painful part: They’re right.”
Warren’s speech laced together phrases and talking points she has used over the last few years as a consumer advocate, Obama administration official, and candidate for Senate.
But to many watching on television in Massachusetts and around the country, it was an introduction, a chance for the Democratic candidate to boost her campaign against Senator Scott Brown, a Republican. For the partisans in the hall, it was vindication for their anger at Republican policies, and it brought them to their feet.
Warren is a star of the Democratic left. And before she even began speaking, the crowd chanted her name. The audience roared when she rebuked Mitt Romney’s oft-quoted line that corporations are people.
“No, Governor Romney, corporations are not people,” she said. “People have hearts, they have kids, they get jobs, they get sick, they cry, they dance. They live, they love, and they die.”
The rhetoric from the Harvard Law School professor was decidedly unwonky and unprofessorial, instead striking a folksy tone she often uses in an effort to tap middle class outrage.
“I had an idea for a consumer financial protection agency to stop the ripoffs,” she said.
Warren spoke about her upbringing in Oklahoma “on the ragged edge of the middle class,” about encounters with anxious voters who are drowning in debt, about America’s history of progressive reform, and about Obama’s fight against lobbyists to create the federal consumer protection agency.
She did not mention Brown at all, instead focusing on Romney. But she clearly tried to define the election as a choice between the parties, even as Brown has tried to define it as a choice between individuals.
While Wednesday night’s speech was clearly an opportunity for Warren, it remains unknown whether the attack lines that inspired Democratic activists will sway the more moderate voters who will decide the election.
The climax was devoted to linking her time as a Methodist Sunday school teacher with the legacy of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who long held the Senate seat she is trying to recapture from Brown. She quoted Scripture (Matthew 25:40), citing the notion that “we are bound to each other and called to act.”
“Senator Kennedy understood that call,” she said, invoking the senator’s emotional address four years ago, at the final convention before he died.
Warren’s spot in the lineup positioned her as the opening act for former president Bill Clinton. The Massachusetts Democrat — who often speaks quickly and gestures emphatically on the campaign trail — offered a more deliberate oratorical style Wednesday. Along with promoting her own candidacy, her speech portrayed Obama as a fighter for the middle class, against rich and powerful opponents bent on killing the consumer protection agency.
“American families didn’t have an army of lobbyists on our side, but what we had was a president – President Obama — leading the way,” she said.
Hours before Warren delivered the speech, the Brown campaign sent a memo to reporters, reminding them that Brown crossed party lines to cast a crucial vote to approve the consumer agency. Brown’s aides cited praise of his vote from top Democrats, including the bill’s author, Representative Barney Frank.
The Warren speech was full of references to a middle class getting “hammered,” a favorite line of hers on the campaign trail. It defined Republicans as the party of “I’ve got mine, the rest of you are on your own.”
“Republicans say they don’t believe in government,” she said. “Sure they do. They believe in government to help themselves and their powerful friends.”
But even in making a stinging argument against the GOP, corporations, and tax breaks that benefit the wealthy, Warren tried to insulate herself from charges of class warfare.
Middle-class people, she said, “don’t resent that someone else makes more money.
“We’re Americans. We celebrate success. We just don’t want the game to be rigged.”
The speech came amid grumbling among some Democrats that Warren’s campaign, and particularly her advertisements, have not been as well executed as Brown’s.
“Folks, this is a tough campaign, but it’s very winnable,” former governor Michael Dukakis said at a breakfast with state delegates Wednesday morning, bringing the issue into the open. “Yeah, I know Elizabeth’s media hasn’t been as good as it should be, and she knows that, and I think you’re going to see some significant changes.”
A top Warren adviser later denied there would be any such changes in the ads, which were produced by Mandy Grunwald, a former aide to President Clinton.
Brown spent Wednesday trying to reinforce his bipartisan credentials, taking a tour of East Boston with Robert Travaglini, a Democrat and former president of the state Senate, and rolling out the endorsement of a Waltham city councilor who is also a Democrat.