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Warren faces test in Democratic caucuses

Front-runner aims to prevent opponents from getting enough votes to get on ballot

By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / February 11, 2012
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She has electrified the activists, but now, after her much ballyhooed entrance into electoral politics, US Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren faces her first serious challenge: rallying enough state Democratic Party convention delegates to clear the primary field.

That test starts today as thousands of Democrats across Massachusetts begin the two-week process of choosing delegates to June’s state party endorsement convention.

The results of the more than 500 meetings of voters at local schools and town halls will measure whether Warren, whose candidacy has excited local Democratic activists and drawn widespread national attention, has harnessed that energy into an effective statewide political machine that she hopes can help her defeat Senator Scott Brown, a Republican.

Warren, a Harvard Law School professor whose public profile was forged in part during her battles in Washington as a consumer advocate, faces minimal opposition in her bid to win the party’s backing at the June convention and the nomination in the September Democratic primary.

The question is whether she has the muscle to sweep the caucuses and gain enough slates of delegates committed to her to block the two other candidates in the race - Marisa DeFranco of Middleton and James Coyne King of Dover - from the ballot.

At this point, neither has nearly the financial resources or the widespread support within the party that Warren has put together since she announced her candidacy in September. Last fall, soon after she jumped into the race, several of the more established Democratic candidates dropped out.

Under party rules, a candidate must receive 15 percent of the delegate vote to qualify for the primary ballot, a steep challenge for DeFranco and King. The two face an equally difficult task of getting 10,000 certified signatures by early May as required by state election laws to have their names appear on the ballot. To get those signatures, they will need a large field organization or a major financial commitment to hire a signature gathering firm.

“This is the first internal test of their supporters,’’ said state Democratic Party chairman John E. Walsh, noting that all three candidates are newcomers to electoral politics. “Now they have the first measurement of their operational effectiveness.’’

By most significant measures, it appears that Warren could potentially emerge from the convention as the only Democratic candidate. Statewide polls show her with an enormous lead in the primary matchup. Her record-breaking fund-raising has left her with $6.6 million in the bank as of a month ago.

DeFranco reported a $7,030 balance in her campaign account. King had $1,660.

The only serious friction in the Democratic contest is Warren’s inclination not to engage the other two candidates. That and her dominance at this point have raised the hackles of her rivals and some activists who feel she should not have a free ride. They point to the fact that she has shunned several debates and not offered a full menu of her positions on major issues.

“It’s kind of overkill,’’ said DeFranco, of Warren’s campaign organizing. But she also acknowledged she is up against a juggernaut. “When you have a mechanism based on money, basically everything is shut down,’’ she said.

Responding to that criticism, Doug Rubin, Warren’s senior adviser, said the campaign recently put position papers addressing a host of issues on her campaign website. Rubin also defended Warren’s decision to avoid some of the debates, saying her team has put its energies into building a campaign infrastructure, which takes up a lot of Warren’s time.

“The campaign has focused on organizing, dozens of grass-roots meetings with volunteers and activists in their communities,’’ said Rubin.

He said he would not speculate on the outcome of the convention vote in June, but downplayed any suggestions that Warren will get enough of a majority to squeeze out the other Democrats.

Warren’s field operation is as overwhelming as her war chest. Warren’s campaign aides said they have had 4,455 volunteers already participating in some sort of field event and they are working to activate over 32,000 volunteers, some of whom have signed up to attend the caucuses and gather signatures for the ballot.

DeFranco said Warren’s ability to throw together a huge campaign field organization in the matter of a few months is not discouraging. She said she has between 40 and 100 volunteers to work the caucuses and gather signatures.

“I have been fighting the federal government for years, so daunting is a relative term for me,’’ said the Middleton lawyer, who specializes in immigration law.

King, a Boston lawyer, said his campaign will have 20 to 25 volunteers out over the weekend and he himself plans to visit 10 of the caucus meetings. He, too, said he is not put off by the overwhelming numbers that Warren has been able to marshal.

“If the convention wants to coronate, that is their decision,’’ King said. “We can’t compete with those numbers, so there is no sense of being daunted by it. We do the best we can to get our message across.’’

But he and DeFranco are running up against a driving force in the race: the excitement of removing Brown from a seat that he won in a humiliating defeat for state and national Democrats, and the Obama White House.

Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.

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