ATTLEBORO - Turning up the collar of his barn jacket to the wind, Scott Brown mingles with campaign voters outside a Stop & Shop on a chilly Sunday morning. One woman requests his autograph for a local who is turning 104. Can he believe it? He can. He has already called to wish her a happy birthday.
He arches his back, then lifts his knee to stretch, noting he has already had his morning run and bike ride. Brown seems so relaxed, he even dashes into Stop & Shop to grab a few things. He emerges with dog food and kitty litter, which he hauls out to the parking lot and slings onto the flatbed of his dirty green pickup, the same truck that sealed his everyman identity and ushered him to national celebrity two years ago.
Retail events like these are Brown’s forte, showcasing the approachability that helped propel him to an unlikely victory, the underestimated Republican who succeeded the giant, Ted Kennedy. But his leading Democratic challenger is a phenomenon in her own right.
Elizabeth Warren blazed onto the national consciousness as a Wall Street watchdog and consumer advocate and has emerged as a candidate with crowd appeal.
On a recent visit to a Plymouth pub, she drew a capacity audience on short notice. Warren worked the room, pumping hands, posing for photographs, scribbling her autograph for one woman’s friends in California. Then, she stood before the crowd and delivered her fiery stump speech, waving her finger in the air to punctuate her points.
“America’s middle class is getting hammered. You’re just getting hammered. And it has got to stop,’’ Warren tells the crowd, to energetic applause. “I don’t want to be a country that says I’ve got mine and the rest of you are on your own.’’
Voters will not deliver their verdict for seven months, but they are now getting reintroduced to Brown and forming first impressions of Warren at the VFW posts, hot dog stands, and pubs along the campaign trail.
Elizabeth Warren has no pickup truck, but she does have a version of the barn jacket that made Brown seem so appealingly normal. Hers is a mid-length, brown quilted coat, which she wore on the bright, brisk Tuesday when she visited Sullivan’s, the famous hot dog stand in South Boston.
Southie, long an enclave of lunch-bucket Democrats, was the only neighborhood in Boston to overwhelmingly support Brown in 2010. But Warren steps onto this turf with a first-timer’s moxie, introducing herself to the four retired men eating hot dogs and clam chowder at a picnic table and telling one, “I like your carpenter hat.’’
She banters with the men about the cool bright weather, the deliciousness of hot dogs, the importance of Sully’s opening, beckoning the spring. Then retired Green Line operator John McCune offers Warren some advice.
“Go to Kelly’s in Revere,’’ says McCune, 57, who lives in Lexington. “That’s where Coakley got in trouble. She never went to the blue-collar places.’’ Warren nods.
The ghost of Martha Coakley - Massachusetts attorney general who lost to Brown in stunning fashion in 2010 - hangs heavily over the Democrats this year. Coakley’s campaign missteps allowed opponents to cast her as aloof and made voters think she was taking their support for granted. Brown’s campaign has already cast Warren in a similar light, as an elitist Harvard Law professor who is out of touch with the concerns of everyday voters.
As a candidate, Warren, a longtime advocate for the middle class, has been emphasizing her own natural feel for people, and her modest upbringing in Oklahoma. On the campaign trail in Attleboro, she introduces herself to three guys smoking outside a diner in a folksy tone: “My Daddy was a maintenance man,’’ she says. “And I ended up as a fancy professor.’’
In Southie, the guys ask her if she has been shaking hands in many bars.
“Been to more bars than I ever thought I’d be in,’’ she says.
“You Irish?’’ one guy asks.
“No, I married into it,’’ she says.
Soon, Ralph Mazzeo, in a black cap, introduces her to his brown bulldog, Mazy, and Warren crouches low to rub the dog’s underside. “Oh, she’s a beauty,’’ Warren says, before inquiring about the dog’s health; “I know they get a lot of different breathing troubles,’’ she offers.
They talk dogs before politics. “How’s you’re campaign going?’’ Mazzeo asks. “Glad you’re in South Boston.’’
Later, Mazzeo tells the Globe that though he has not settled on a candidate, he will give Warren a chance. She’s “a very smart woman,’’ he says. “I know she’s got a great background.’’
Last time around, he voted for Brown because Brown had campaigned at Dunkin’ Donuts on Christmas Eve.
“Anybody that would come out on Christmas Eve,’’ Mazzeo says, “I know he’s gonna be a hard worker.’’
It would be easy to caricature their personas - Warren as all policy; Brown, all personality - and there is a vein of truth in that portrait. Warren does seem more comfortable talking about financial issues (think: the Glass-Steagall Act) while Brown appears more at ease with small talk (think: the Red Sox starting rotation). But both candidates show more range than those generalizations suggest. Warren can crack a joke about an old boyfriend and is easy with a quip; Brown can mix it up with venture capitalists fuming about regulatory policy. Each has grabbed the national spotlight and displays a natural charisma with voters.
More pronounced are the candidates’ differences in tone: Brown is casual and cool, self-effacing about his celebrity, with the confidence to keep his volume low and let his admirers amplify his presence. Warren, on the other hand, talks quickly and emphatically, as if she’s cramming a week’s worth of passion into 30 seconds, sometimes interrupting people to connect her policy ideas to their personal stories.
The voters’ expectations of the candidates also seem to differ. At her campaign stop in the Plymouth pub, those who approach Warren for her picture then question her about their pet issues, from Social Security to the Defense of Marriage Act. With Brown, the interactions are often breezier. At Patriot Place in Foxborough, shoppers are delighted to see the senator strolling through and dash over to pose for photos with him. A National Guardsman who recognizes Brown from a training exercise in Kazakhstan cuts a path to say hello.
“Where’s your protection?’’ asks Sergeant John C. Caplis, of Templeton.
“You’re it,’’ Brown grins.
Putting crowd at ease
It’s midafternoon in the Joseph Leon Mottolo VFW Post in Revere, and the liquor cabinet is still locked. But with the fluorescent glow hanging over the dim room, it might as well be nighttime. Brown enters with an entourage of local officials and Senate aides and urges the nervous crowd around him to relax.
This is going to be informal. He loosens his tie to underscore the point. At ease.
Brown, who can be guarded in discussing policy, seems especially comfortable with veterans. He is a military guy, and this small event on the North Shore is an opportunity to remind swing voters in a blue collar Democratic city that he serves in the Army National Guard as a lieutenant colonel and JAG.
It is also a chance to highlight his ability as an incumbent senator to deliver constituent services, particularly to those veterans who rely heavily on government benefits.
He tells the group about his two trips to Afghanistan, one as a reservist and another for a weeklong training mission. He talks about the bills he has pushed through the Senate, measures with patriotic names like the “Hire a Hero Act’’ and the “Stolen Valor’’ bill.
And he speaks in opposition to the Defense Department’s proposal to cut costs by raising health care fees for veterans and military families; he proposes cutting congressional health benefits instead.
Then Brown fields questions for 20 minutes. When someone asks about the trouble vets are having getting jobs in the Boston Fire Department, Brown says he is in talks with the union to help them move up the list.
When he finishes, the visitors all want photographs, and one veteran cannot help commenting on Brown’s appearance.
“You’re the best-looking senator I ever saw,’’ says a World War II veteran, Morris Morris, 84.
For Brown, such observations abound, though they’re sometimes double-edged, wielded by critics as a reminder of Brown’s modeling career as a young man that included a nude centerfold in Cosmopolitan magazine. Sometimes that old notoriety interrupts his new fame in awkward ways.
At the Haverhill Boys and Girls Club, after a game of basketball with a group of boys, a 12-year-old boy with a faux hawk corners him with a list of questions. First among them, “What was it like modeling for Cosmopolitan?’’
“It was a lot of work,’’ Brown tells the boy, grinning uneasily at the kids who surround him. “I wouldn’t recommend it for everybody.’’
An unlikely celebrity
Warren, too, had her time in the spotlight long before she became a political candidate. As chairwoman of a congressional committee overseeing bailout of banking institutions, she was the populist professor whose straightforward explanations of the financial meltdown and fierce advocacy for the middle class made her an unlikely celebrity, from Capitol Hill to The Daily Show.
Now, she’s touring the towns of Massachusetts, making her case at far smaller venues - diners, pubs, union halls. And she’s hosting roundtable discussions on her areas of expertise, talking with home buyers at a housing agency about the intricacies of getting a mortgage, and with veterans in a cafeteria at Bunker Hill Community College about the financial pressures facing military personnel.
She is as intense in a Plymouth pub as she was in Washington. The difference is that now she brings that intensity into one-on-one interactions with voters, looking them straight in the eye, clasping their hands, and speaking emphatically about their issues.
When Warren reaches in to shake hands with people, she seems to launch her full body into the encounter, as if to demonstrate her wholehearted engagement.
“I’m a toucher,’’ Warren said, after leaving Plymouth’s New World Tavern. “I am amazed when I meet some people in politics and I think: ‘You don’t actually like people. How did you end up in this business?’ ’’
At times, it’s clear that she is still learning the rhythms of retail campaigning. In Lawrence on a raw day in late February, Warren sometimes leaves a conversation before its natural conclusion. When a former state legislator offers his advice - “Run hard, run like you’re losing all the time’’ - she cuts him off. “Oh, I’ll be working for this before the sun goes up in the morning and long after it goes down,’’ she says.
In Attleboro, she visits the US headquarters of a Japanese manufacturer of circuit-board testing equipment and meets a few eager employees in the lobby before ducking into a conference room with vice president Larre Nelson. They sit at the table, a scattering of colorful circuit boards between them.
She already has his vote, and he tells her how excited the workers will be to meet her when she tours the factory floor. The conversation becomes animated as the two discuss the state of the local and global economies. “That’s right, that’s right,’’ Warren encourages him, looking him straight in the eye. She stretches her hands, taps the table, counts on her fingers to delineate her points.
“Say more,’’ she says as he talks about the cost of health care, its detriment to his business, and his ideas for curbing it.
They talk for a half-hour, so long that, by the time Warren emerges from his office, the shift has ended. The workers she might have met have all gone home.
But no matter. Warren is off to the nearby Morin’s Diner where she starts fresh.
Outside the restaurant, she introduces herself to three smokers huddled by entrance.
“If you get elected, are you gonna change your views or your goals?’’ asks the guy in the Bruins jacket.
“Not a chance,’’ she says.
“Cause that happens,’’ he says.
“Not a chance,’’ she repeats.
“You just earned my vote,’’ he says.