CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Elizabeth Warren used a national audience Wednesday night to deliver a campaign message that has hit a roadblock back at home.
The Harvard Law School professor and US Senate candidate tried to boost President Obama’s reelection prospects at the Democratic National Convention by talking about his commitment to her pet cause: creating a consumer watchdog agency, most especially in the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse.
In doing so, Warren promoted Obama’s concern for a key political demographic, the struggling middle class. But she also connected herself to a still-popular political figure in Massachusetts while trying to stave off the prospect of ticket-splitting voters in her approaching Election Day showdown with Republican Senator Scott Brown.
“I had an idea for a consumer financial protection agency to stop the rip-offs,” Warren told the cheering crowd inside the Time Warner Cable Arena and millions more at home tuning in for the ensuing prime-time address of former President Bill Clinton.
“American families didn’t have an army of lobbyists on our side; what we had was a president – President Obama leading the way,” she said. “And when the lobbyists were closing in for the kill, Barack Obama squared his shoulders, planted his feet, and stood firm. And that’s how we won.”
She added for emphasis: “That’s what happens when you have a president on the side of the middle class.”
Of course, Warren argues that she is on the same side, too. While Brown has presented himself as an everyman with imagery laden with his barn coat, pickup truck, and family-centric lifestyle, his Democratic challenger argues that she is a reliable supporter of the working class and not a Republican poseur trying to win reelection.
“President Obama believes in a country where billionaires pay their taxes just like their secretaries do—and I can’t believe I have to say this in 2012—a country where women get equal pay for equal work,” Warren said to cheers.
“He believes in a country where everyone is held accountable, where no one can steal your purse on Main Street or your pension on Wall Street,” she added. “That’s what President Obama believes.”
It just so happens it’s also the same motivating force behind Warren’s consumer advocacy and political candidacy.
In that fashion, Warren walked a very narrow tightrope on Wednesday.
During her first appearance at a party convention, she coolly but deliberately aimed to energize the national liberal/progressive base that has fueled her campaign with donations making her the top-raising congressional candidate in all of this year’s US House and Senate campaigns.
Yet she also sought to promote a kinship with Massachusetts moderates and independents who came out for Brown during his 2010 special election campaign, and now are weighing whether to re-commit for the most comfortable position in US politics: a six-year Senate term.
While Massachusetts remains a reliably Democratic state despite having a majority of its voters deign themselves “unenrolled,” Brown has run within the margin of error or held a slight lead in recent polls analyzing the race.
While some political analysts view that as a failure for a sitting senator, whose chamber-mates run with reelection rate exceeding 90-percent, other analysts see it as a bigger lapse for Warren, given the political demographic of Massachusetts.
Into that breach she stepped with her convention address.
She spoke to the nation – but also her home state – by talking about her life as the daughter of a carpet salesman and mother forced to work at Sears after he had a heart attack.
She used her signature stump line to declare “grew up in a family on the ragged edges of the middle class.”
She noted she is from a family where her three brothers all served in the armed forces. She thanked the country for the opportunities it has given them and, in her case, through the form of student loans.
But Warren quickly transitioned to her argument that the “middle class has been chipped, squeezed, and hammered.”
She added: “People feel like the system is rigged against them. And here’s the painful part: They’re right. The system is rigged.”
With that blunt declaration, Warren merged her Senate campaign with Obama’s presidential race.
Both argue that tax cuts for the wealthy – proposed by the Republicans – will hurt the working class.
Both question the continued worth of tax breaks and subsidies for oil companies when sky-high gasoline prices are generating record industry profits.
And both of them have targeted Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney for relieving his personal income tax burden with investment deals in Bermuda or the Cayman Islands.
“These folks don’t resent that someone else makes more money,” Warren said in speaking of average citizens. “We’re Americans. We celebrate success.”
Then she added: “We just don’t want the game to be rigged.”
With those lines, Warren balanced the white-hot rhetoric that marked her tenure—first, as head of the Congressional Oversight Panel overseeing the $700 billion TARP program and, second, as an administration employee setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—with her non-partisan plea for independent votes.
She spent the rest of the speech promoting her former boss and her party’s leader.
And she closed by recalling Kennedy’s final address to his fellow Democrats at their convention four years ago in Denver.
The goal was to build turnout that could benefit Obama – and, through his coattails, her—in Massachusetts as she attempts to reclaim Kennedy’s seat on Nov. 6.
“Are you ready to work for a level playing field? Joe Biden is ready. Barack Obama is ready. I’m ready,” she said, clutching her heart. “You’re ready. America’s ready.”Glen Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.