SPRINGFIELD - Elizabeth Warren, vowing Saturday not to “fold up the first time I got punched,’’ reinvigorated her Senate campaign with a crushing blow to her last remaining primary opponent, clearing the way for a direct challenge to US Senator Scott Brown.
Warren, drawing on her strong support from Democratic activists, used her organizational muscle to take 95.77 percent of the delegate vote.
The win denied immigration lawyer Marisa DeFranco the 15 percent delegate threshold required to secure a spot on the September primary ballot. It was the first time in recent party history that a Democratic candidate in a two-person race had ever failed to reach that level.
The unexpectedly dominant margin gave Warren a much-needed boost after weeks of negative publicity and tough questions related to whether she used undocumented claims of Native American heritage to gain advantage in her academic career. And it allows her to focus solely on Brown in the critical summer months, instead of becoming embroiled in a messy primary.
“I’ve got just one thing to say: I’m ready,’’ Warren told supporters at the MassMutual Center in Springfield after officially receiving her party’s endorsement.
She immediately challenged Brown to debates. “I’d love to see some debates with Scott Brown,’’ Warren told reporters. “Let’s get started on this. I’m ready.’’
Though most of the field had cleared months ago for Warren, Saturday’s state party convention in Springfield was nonetheless crucial for her. After five weeks on the defensive, Warren was able to publicly bask in an adoring crowd of 3,500 delegates and reestablish her message of economic populism.
Democrats and campaign advisers had been looking to the convention to reset her campaign and renew the sense of momentum that surrounded her candidacy when she first entered the race last fall.
“It’s a historic win and an impressive win and it couldn’t come at a better time,’’ said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist. “Now she has unprecedented momentum coming out of the convention.’’
With only one major statewide race at stake, Saturday’s convention lacked the hoopla and tension of past Democratic gatherings. The most dramatic speech came from Governor Deval Patrick, who held the hall rapt, stirring delegates to their feet with his call for “Democrats to grow a backbone and stand up for what we believe.’’
For weeks, party leaders had spoken in favor of keeping an open process, and Warren’s advisers, along with party chairman John Walsh, had said publicly that they expected DeFranco would win a spot on the ballot.
While DeFranco’s removal from the race was novel on the Democratic side, Republicans two years ago pushed Christy Mihos off the GOP ballot so that Charles D. Baker could have a clear shot at challenging Patrick.
DeFranco’s small but committed group of supporters arrived at the convention determined to prevent what one called “the powers that be’’ from deciding who was on the ballot.
“To have somebody work that hard,’’ she deserves a spot, said Martin Downey, a 63-year-old pipe fitter from Weymouth.
But in the end, most delegates were persuaded DeFranco would be a distraction and that a primary could hurt Warren, who has been under attack from Republicans.
“It’s absolutely nonsense to have a divisive primary fight,’’ said Michael Dukakis, former governor, as he canvassed the floor on Warren’s behalf.
After the vote, DeFranco left the convention hall without a formal press conference.
Before the results were announced, as it was becoming evident that she would probably not make the ballot, DeFranco said she would not commit to endorsing Warren. She talked of returning to the routine of life away from the campaign trail.
“I’m a real person with a real job, so I have other obligations to take care of,’’ she said.
Warren said she planned to reach out to DeFranco, but had not yet done so.
Republicans immediately pounced on Democrats for what they called heavy-handed treatment of DeFranco. “They took the opportunity to snuff out a burgeoning campaign because they were afraid she might raise uncomfortable issues in a primary debate, and I think she was starting to do that,’’ said Peter Blute, deputy chairman of the state Republican Party, speaking with reporters at a park bandstand across the street from the convention hall.
Blute called the convention a “very thorough and complete slap-down of a candidate. To me it shows the power of the big out-of-state money, and interest groups that [Warren] has behind her.’’
Party officials had downplayed the potential for Warren’s sweep. But she and her organization had been working on it for months, pushing to swell the number of delegates who would come to the event. That raised the bar for DeFranco to reach the 15 percent level to more than 500 delegates, a tall order for an underfinanced candidate with little organization behind her.
Warren and her supporters pestered those who were wavering about whether to attend the convention to get to Springfield. To cap it off, Patrick made a public endorsement of Warren on Wednesday, though he denied he was trying to help oust DeFranco.
Warren, too, insisted Saturday that there was no official party effort to block DeFranco. Nobody, she said, “pushed anybody off the ballot.’’
“I’ve been out there working for every single vote across this commonwealth for eight months now, and that’s what I do and that’s what the supporters have done,’’ Warren said. “That’s what you’re supposed to do in a race. You get out there and try.’’
Warren’s inability to end the Native American controversy has forced her into fewer public appearances, many of which have been awkward and defensive.
She used her 12-minute convention speech Saturday to underscore that she would be a fighter and diminish Brown as a senator with a populist image but a poor voting record.
She lamented the loss of Edward M. Kennedy, who held the Senate seat for decades, and then took a shot at the seat’s current occupant, saying, “It’s a long way from Ted Kennedy to Scott Brown.’’
Brown’s “answer is to talk about anything except how he voted on jobs, education, the environment, oil subsidies, or special deals for Wall Street,’’ Warren said.
“His answer is to talk about my family and about how I grew up,’’ she added near the climax of the speech. “Well if that’s all you’ve got, Scott Brown, I’m ready.’’