Fifteen months ago, exploring a run for the Senate, Elizabeth Warren told 60 activists at a Dorchester house party that if she had not succeeded in creating a consumer protection agency, there would have been “blood and teeth on the floor.”
The activists loved it. Here was Warren in full pugilistic mode, the full-throated voice of liberals who had watched dispiritedly as Republicans rose to power on the energy of the Tea Party. At last, they had their counterweight.
Now, as Warren steams into the last two days of her closely fought race with Senator Scott Brown, there is a lot less blood and teeth on the floor and a lot more hugs and hearts on the sleeve. She has softened her image and rhetoric over the campaign, becoming a more polished and, some say, more conventional Democratic candidate.
Brown, a veteran politician who has long branded himself a bipartisan bridge-builder, has undergone his own shifts. He has risked his likability by going on the attack and has pushed his pitch to the left with ads that feature President Obama and tout his support for abortion rights and equal pay for women.
Brown’s moves, designed to tarnish his opponent’s character and align himself with some Democratic ideals, may reflect the political calculation of a Republican trying to win in a heavily Democratic state in a presidential year.
On Saturday, speaking before several hundred supporters at a rally at Plimoth Plantation, Brown made a direct appeal to voters sick of partisan gridlock. He said Warren would march “in lockstep” with her party while he would be “an independent voter, somebody down there working together with both sides.”
“We are Americans first, and we’re in trouble,” Brown said. “We need to find solutions together, because, if we don’t find solutions together, we’re going to have a very difficult time getting out of this fiscal and financial mess we’re in.”
“Thank you for telling us the truth!” a woman yelled.
“Well, amen to that,” Brown responded.
Warren’s evolution, from unsparing warrior to more tactical and tempered candidate, may reflect her need to disarm Republicans who attacked her for her aggressive rhetoric and her need to woo voters outside her activist base.
On Saturday, Warren — joined by Governor Deval Patrick and US Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia — addressed about 1,000 supporters at the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury, the site of her first major Boston rally one year ago. She mixed her characteristic call to arms against Republicans with an appeal to the American spirit of generosity.
“It’s become pretty clear over the last year that this race is about whose side you’re on,” Warren said. “The Republicans have made pretty clear how they see that. They say cut taxes for those at the top, and let everybody else pick up the pieces. They are on the side of billionaires, millionaires, and big oil companies. They are saying, in effect, ‘I got mine; the rest of you are on your own.’ We are a better people than that.”
Some see Warren’s changes over the year as the growth of a candidate who began the race as a political neophyte and learned how to campaign effectively. Others argue that Warren’s candidacy was simply retooled by savvy strategists.
Last summer, for example, Warren stumbled in responding to questions about her claims to Native American heritage, citing as evidence a relative who had “high cheekbones like all of the Indians do.” The controversy dogged her for months. But by the time the issue surfaced in the first debate in September, she had a rehearsed answer ready to go. “This is my family, this is who I am, and it’s not going to change,” she said.
“She has learned that there’s a very careful balance between choosing your words and also being spontaneous, and that’s the art of campaigning,” said Bob Massie, a Democratic activist who ran against Warren in the primary and now supports her.
Todd Domke, a Republican strategist, said that such polishing has turned Warren from a candidate of big ideas into a standard-issue Democrat. For example, Warren’s accusation that Brown protects billionaires and Big Oil echoes a line used by other Democratic candidates around the country.
“To me,” Domke said, “it’s ironic that the consumer activist who fought for truth in advertising became such a packaged candidate.”
Warren’s closing message echoes the original promise she made at that Dorchester house party, to be a fighter. Underscoring the point, she held a rally at a Lowell boxing gym on Friday.
But the two-fisted tone that marked her entrance into the race has been tempered. She still talks about the role of government in laying the foundation for economic growth. Yet she has abandoned the sharp language that set her apart from many other candidates, no longer using lines like, “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own, nobody.” That was part of the speech she gave last August, which went viral on YouTube.
Warren’s final ad takes a less confrontational approach and shows her warmly greeting voters young and old. “Know this: My fight is for you,” she says. “Always has been. And I won’t back down, no matter how long the odds or how powerful the opposition. . . . If you send me to the Senate, I’ll work my heart out for you.”
Brown is closing the race with the same appeal he opened with, that he is an honest family man who will serve “people over party.” In his final ad, he is seen with his fist clutched firmly on the steering wheel of his truck, standing with his arm around his wife, strolling in a Red Sox jacket.
In the months before that rousing ad, however, Brown launched pointed attacks on Warren’s claims to Indian ancestry and her legal work on behalf of corporations. His argument that Warren is “not who she says she is” was an attempt to discredit her as a viable opponent, Domke said.
But the slashing style ran against Brown’s promise to rise above politics as usual, Domke said. In the first debate of the race, for example, Brown referred to Warren’s appearance in an attempt to demonstrate that she is not Native American.
“Professor Warren claimed that she was a Native American, a person of color,” Brown said, gesturing toward Warren. “And, as you can see, she’s not.”
Domke was critical of his fellow Republican for resorting to negative tactics.
“He became more political in attacking,” Domke said. “He became more of a typical politician.”