LAS VEGAS — Three days before this week’s presidential debate here, a cold had reduced Senator Elizabeth Warren’s voice to a withered whisper. As she tried fruitlessly to project at a town hall in Reno, the campaign staffer organizing audience questions was firm: It was time to stop taking questions and get offstage.
“I apologize we can’t do the full rip-roaring, because God, I want to,” Warren rasped, her disappointment obvious. “I feel good, I just — I just can’t do this right now.”
At the time, her fading voice seemed a too-on-the-nose metaphor for her precarious position in the Democratic race.
But one blockbuster debate performance and $5 million in new grass-roots donations later, Warren’s world looked entirely different Thursday afternoon. She greeted supporters outside her field office in North Las Vegas, taking a victory lap in front of pumped-up volunteers by reliving parts of her scorching takedown of former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg the night before.
“Last night, it was my job to make sure that America got a little closer look at Mayor Bloomberg and came to understand that of all the people standing on that stage, he is the riskiest one for the Democrats,” Warren said.
Wednesday night’s performance, when the senator skewered Bloomberg and jabbed at her other rivals, was the most explosive of her campaign, delighting allies and supporters who worried the hyperdisciplined candidate was in danger of letting the race pass her by.
“She came with lots of fire yesterday,” said Nelini Stamp, the national organizing director for the Working Families Party, which has endorsed Warren. “I think this is the Elizabeth Warren that we are all used to seeing but maybe haven’t seen in a little bit.”
Ever since her summer-long rise in the polls slowed amid her halting embrace of Medicare for All, Warren has been a candidate struggling to find her way back to the top. In recent weeks, she sought to cast herself as a unity candidate and refrained almost obsessively from criticizing her rivals, even as Bloomberg and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders made headlines by taking digs at each other.
Now, Warren seems like a candidate unbound, breaking the rules she set for herself about not attacking her rivals and even apparently dispensing with her long-held promise to disavow any super PAC that tries to help her.
It is not clear, however, whether her debate performance will be enough to clear a path forward for a candidate who has not been able to say in recent weeks whether there are any primary states she believes she can win after finishing third in Iowa and fourth in New Hampshire.
Even if her evisceration of Bloomberg slows his momentum, there is little sign that she can stop Sanders, who notched strong finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, from piling up more wins.
“She did have a good night — arguably the best night of anybody on the stage — but it came too late, it feels like to me,” said Mark Longabaugh, a Democratic strategist and former adviser to Sanders. Only Sanders and Bloomberg seem poised to be competitive on Super Tuesday and beyond, Longabaugh said.
“To be able to compete you’ve got to have resources and I only see two candidates who have the resources to compete on that national scale,” he said.
And Warren’s recent decision not to disavow a super PAC that formed this week to help her, a huge reversal for a candidate who began her political career railing against them, may attract charges of hypocrisy right as she has been gaining momentum.
“You can’t change a corrupt system by taking its money,” Sanders tweeted on Thursday in an apparent reference to Warren. (He has the support of the outside group Our Revolution.)
But her star turn on the debate stage provides Warren with one much-needed aspect of her long shot strategy to the nomination — cash. Hours before new federal filings revealed the campaign had just $2.3 million left at the end of January, her staff announced the campaign had raised a whopping $17 million already in February, potentially helping Warren to wait out an unsettled race and position herself as an alternative to Sanders.
Warren can use the money to help pay for a campaign staff of more than 1,000 spread across states with contests further down the primary calendar.
Warren was bold almost immediately out of the gate Wednesday night, attempting to insert herself into the very first question — which was directed at Sanders —- before leaping in to accuse Bloomberg of calling women “fat broads” and “horse-faced lesbians.”
She eviscerated his use of nondisclosure agreements in his businesses and kept the attacks coming, sometimes putting him, Sanders, and her other rivals on the defense in practically the same breath.
Speaking Thursday outside her field office, Warren kept the attacks going. In response to a question from a reporter, she took Sanders to task for the failure by the 78-year-old front-runner, who had a heart attack in the fall, to release his full medical records.
“He had made a promise to release all his medical records and I thought that was what he was going to do,” Warren said, adding, “He just hasn’t. I don’t think that’s a question of opinion.”
Warren’s supporters were over the moon.
“It was galvanizing, it was exciting,” said Terry O’Neill, a volunteer from Oregon who had traveled to Nevada to knock on doors for her. “Women are not allowed to be angry, women are not allowed to be passionate, men are. . . . You know what? I’m over that.”
Her supporters had complained in recent days that the media have “erased” her by counting her out too early — a sentiment they describe as both motivating and frustrating.
Supporters in North Las Vegas were all but basking in the glow of the debate performance, which they said had proved the naysayers wrong.
But 70,000 Nevadans have already taken advantage of early voting.
“I think although the debate last night was exciting and there was a lot of buzz around her performance, I don’t know that it’s really going to make an impact come Saturday,” said Mariela Hernandez, of Latino Victory Nevada. “I can definitely see it making a difference in South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states.”
Among the early voters who had already dismissed Warren was Nishon Jackson, a hotel worker, who stood in line outside a voting site on Tuesday night with plans to choose Sanders or Tom Steyer.
“Elizabeth Warren needs to get a little bit more tougher, I think,” she said, and cast her vote 24 hours before Warren stepped onstage.