Nation

Clinton faces headwinds from liberals as Warren rises

Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton.

WASHINGTON — It has been a tough year for the Hillary Rodham Clinton juggernaut.

Her record as secretary of state was undercut by the rise of the Islamic State and a breakdown in relations with Russia. Her much-awaited book didn’t sell many copies. Her face graced the cover of this year’s worst-selling issue of People magazine.

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Then, during the last few weeks, a different juggernaut erupted — a liberal campaign to persuade Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren to run for president.

One group, MoveOn.org, is spending $1 million on a “Run Warren Run” effort and recently sent troops to the first-caucus state of Iowa. A second team, Democracy for America, has bolted from its pro-Clinton founder and is using $250,000 on a similar pro-Warren effort.

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Clinton still appears likely to clinch a nomination, particularly if Warren keeps her pledge not to run. But the difficulties of 2014 are casting her race in a different light, raising questions about liberal dissatisfaction with her record and whether a leftward shift would hurt her in a general election.

“There are a lot of unchecked boxes with Hillary Clinton when it comes to economic populism and corporate accountability,” said Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal group. “There are definitely red flags.”

He cited pricey speaking fees that Clinton received at two events for Goldman Sachs, a Wall Street investment bank, and questions about her position on numerous policies that affect the middle class, such as a long-shot hope to expand Social Security benefits.

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The group, while not part of the draft effort, has sent an organizer to New Hampshire in hopes of creating a coalition that ensures that candidates carry Warren’s message.

At the very least, these liberal groups hope to use her momentum to push Clinton in a direction more aligned with a populist agenda.

“We absolutely would welcome Secretary Clinton laying out an energizing and bold agenda on the issues MoveOn members care about and Senator Warren cares about,” said Ben Wikler, Washington director of MoveOn.org.

In a sign of increased agitation with the Warren dynamic, a Clinton adviser recently met with the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said cofounder Green, confirming a report first aired by MSNBC. He declined to provide details.

Democracy for America helps showcase the divide among activists. While the liberal group is pushing for Warren, founder Howard Dean favors Clinton.

“I am convinced if you put the facts in front of Hillary Clinton, she would see the facts, she would understand the issue, and she would do the right thing,” said Dean, a former Vermont governor and past chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Many Democrats still flock to Clinton. More than 80 percent said they would support her in a presidential bid, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. But 71 percent of all voters surveyed said they want the next president to take a different approach to the White House.

Warren’s recent successes have propelled her popularity among liberals. She nearly derailed a big spending bill over a provision that she said would water down financial regulations. She has also taken on the White House by opposing Obama’s nominee for a Treasury undersecretary, Antonio Weiss, largely due to his Wall Street ties.

Supporters shrug at Warren’s insistence that she is not running in 2016 and note that she puts her dismissals in present tense. She has pledged to complete her term, which ends in January 2019. Clinton has signaled she will run but has not given a final decision.

Clinton has stayed silent on Warren’s latest maneuvers. But supporters are setting her up as a liberal figure in her own right.

“There’s such an impressive record in Hillary’s life and across the span of her career supporting and promoting opportunities for middle-class families, for women, and children,” said Tracy Sefl, a senior adviser for Ready for Hillary, a political action committee that is not affiliated with Clinton but has raised more than $12 million to encourage a presidential bid.

Nick Merrill, a spokesman for Clinton, said the two women have long fought for the same ideals.

Asked about the impact of Warren’s rise on a potential Clinton bid, he said via e-mail, “We need more people like Elizabeth Warren and those she inspires fighting for them.”

Clinton channeled the Massachusetts senator in October, when she spoke at a Boston event aimed at saving Martha Coakley’s faltering Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign.

“Don’t let anyone tell you that, you know, it’s corporations and businesses that create jobs,” she said, echoing a theme often sounded by Warren. Republicans denounced her remarks as liberal pandering, and she backed away from them days later saying she had “shorthanded” her comments.

But some of the enthusiasm Clinton generated when she first ran for president in 2008 has waned.

A speech she gave at Georgetown University this month filled a little more than half the auditorium.

Her autobiography, a 656-page tome titled “Hard Choices,” has yet to sell enough copies to meet a reported $14 million advance.

And people still wince at Clinton’s comment last June that she and her husband left the White House “dead broke.”

Some supporters fear this erosion of Clinton’s image, especially when encouraged by members of her own party, will hurt Democratic chances of winning the White House.

“My concern is anytime you leave your base, you run the risk of Republicans pursuing,” said Lou D’Allesandro, a longtime New Hampshire state senator and Clinton ally. “But if [Clinton] decides to run, it will be tough to unlodge her.”

The pair aren’t exactly chummy.

Warren called out Clinton in her book, “The Two-Income Trap,” for approving bankruptcy legislation as a New York senator that Warren believed would harm working families.

But Warren has said she backs a Clinton run. And Clinton has sought to make friends. “I love watching Elizabeth give it to those who deserve to get it,” she said at the Coakley event.

Liberals are banking on the Warren focus to pay off even if she doesn’t run.

Clinton “isn’t a turn-off as much as an insurance policy,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic political analyst in Boston. “This is much more about getting Hillary Clinton to embrace these conditions than watching Elizabeth Warren on a campaign for the White House.”

Jessica Meyers can be reached at jessica.meyers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessicameyers.
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