CHARLOTTE, NC—Elizabeth Warren took the primetime stage for her first Democratic convention 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. The rhetoric from the Harvard Law School professor was decidedly un-wonky and un-professorial, instead striking a folksy tone she often uses in an attempt 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.
The speech did not make a single mention of Senator Scott Brown, her Republican opponent, instead focusing on Mitt Romney, the GOP presidential nominee. But she clearly tried to define the November election as a choice between the parties, even as Brown has tried to define it as a choice between individuals.
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 now trying to recapture from Brown. She quoted scripture (Matthew 25:40), and 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 primetime made her the opening act for former President Bill Clinton. 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.
“And when the lobbyists were closing in for the kill, Barack Obama squared his shoulders, planted his feet, and stood firm,” she added. “And that’s how we won.”
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. It cited praise of Brown’s vote from top Democrats, including the bill’s author, Representative Barney Frank, who said last year that he admired Brown’s “willingness to break with the extreme elements of his party.”
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 selfish, 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.”
She also rebuked 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.”
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,” she said. “We just don’t want the game to be rigged.”
The speech came amid grumbling among some Democrats that Warren’s campaign, in 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 any such change in the ads, which are the product of media consultant and former aide to President Clinton, Mandy Grunwald.
Brown spent Wednesday trying to reinforce his bipartisan credentials, taking a tour of East Boston with former Democratic Senate President Robert Travaglini and rolling out the endorsement of a Waltham city counselor who is also a Democrat.
While Brown struck positive tones in his public appearances, his campaign and the state Republican Party continued to hit Warren hard. Brown released a new website Tuesday attacking her as an angry, hypocritical “fake Indian.” The state GOP followed up Wednesday with a video with Native Americans from Cherokee, North Carolina, drawing further attention to her undocumented claims of Native American ancestry.
Glen Johnson of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.
Noah Bierman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.