WORCESTER — As Elizabeth Warren makes her way through the restaurant, with its locally painted art and locally grown food, patrons set down their lattes to greet her.
Warren hugs one woman, pecks another on the cheek, shakes hands with an entire table. The crowd at NU Café, a popular hangout, seems to welcome her attention and the down-home drawl that could make you forget that she makes her living at a certain Cambridge law school.
“Awww, that’s what I like to hear,” Warren says to a couple who have pledged their support. “Way to go,” she exclaims with a double thumbs-up at another table.
Then, she listens intently as Joshua Van Dyke, the owner, tells how a local bank helped him when the big banks would not. He is the embodiment of her message, of the little guy she says she will fight for in Washington.
But after Warren and her retinue rush off to another cafe in another town, the “Elizabeth Warren” signs come down and Van Dyke makes a confession: He has yet to decide whether to vote for her or the Republican she is trying to unseat, US Senator Scott Brown. Both have ideas that appeal to him, but he likes Brown. Plus, he knows him a lot better.
And that is what it comes down to for Warren. She has the smarts, she has the political affiliation, and she certainly has the campaign contributions to be a successful candidate in Massachusetts. But as she campaigns to replace a senator who rode to victory two years ago in large part because of his everyday-guy likability, Warren is working – one hug, one high-five at a time – to persuade voters that she is one of them, that she is on their side, that they can like her, too.
To defeat Brown, Warren also has to rev up the Democratic rank-and-file a lot better than his 2010 opponent, Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose campaign fizzled in the critical final days.
As this race nears its end, Warren seems to have grown increasingly comfortable in the roll of rally rabble-rouser, taking aim at Brown’s voting record, and singing out her positions in defiant cries to the cheers of supporters.
But still the challenge lingers. In a recent Globe poll, more than half said Brown was more likable while only about a quarter gave the nod to Warren, although the poll also showed her holding a narrow overall lead. And so she continues to campaign across the state, at cafes and construction sites, at firehouses and outdoor fairs, hoping her personal touch pays off.
* * *
It is a gray, gusty autumn day on the Boston waterfront. Warren, clad in the plain, brown quilted coat she wears in stormier weather — her fashion counterpart to Brown’s famous barn jacket — is staring skyward, gawking in admiration at the mirrored windows of a building going up at Fan Pier.
The event is billed as a tour of the site, but mostly she mingles with men in hard hats, members of the Laborers Local 223, which has endorsed her.
Martin Walsh, business manager of the union, gets a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. Several others get the hug; some pose for pictures.
Warren makes her pitch. She cites votes by Brown that she says identify him as a servant of “big oil, millionaires and billionaires,” who opposed job bills, equal pay for equal work, and President Obama’s health care reforms. She promises to vote to end tax cuts for the country’s wealthiest earners and subsidies to oil companies, to support investment in infrastructure that will, she promises, create jobs.
“That’s what I’m doin’, and that’s what I’m gonna keep on doin’, ” she says in her light Oklahoma drawl. “That’s what I’m gonna be out there talkin’ about every single day.”
When she talks with voters, Warren frequently speaks of her own modest background (“My father was a janitor, my mother answered the phones at Sears.”). She never brings up Harvard. And she always reminds them that this is her first political campaign.
On the trail — and in one-on-one conversations, out of the spotlight — she often slips into a twang that does not come through in her televised debates or press conferences. She blows off steam after a day of campaigning “watchin’ TV” (it’s “better’n’ havin’ a drink”) or “walkin’ Otis,” her golden retriever.
All politicians shake hands and hold babies; Warren seems to make it her mission to hug anyone who will hug back. Her supporters seem to know it. “I need my Elizabeth hug!” one woman says as she rushes up to the candidate after an event in Dartmouth.
And when the cameras go off and the crowd of reporters dissipates, Warren will gush with unfiltered enthusiasm about the things and people she encounters. Staring up at the Fan Pier building one last time before stepping into a black sport utility vehicle, she grabs the arm of the one reporter who lingers and says: “I love being in a place like this.”
“This really gets me excited. I mean look at that,” she says, pointing to the unfinished summit of the structure and the men going back to their jobs. “These are workers, these are working-class people, people with families, and I just get excited when I come out here.
* * *
Warren is on her way into the Blue Bunny Books and Toys store at the beginning of a brief campaign tour of downtown Dedham. She stops and bends down to peer into a stroller.
“This is Molly,” a woman in a North Face fleece says, pulling out a smartphone to snap a picture of the Senate candidate speaking to her daughter.
“Hellooo Molly,” Warren coos. “My name’s Elizabeth. I’m running for the United States Senate, because that’s what girls do.”
“She’s a role model. She’s your role model,” the mom says into the stroller. “Thank you so much,” she says to Warren.
“This is why we do this,” Warren says.
In front of shelves stocked with brain teasers and puzzles, Peter Reynolds, the store owner, who also writes and illustrates children’s books, tells Warren that “creative thinking” has kept the store afloat for 10 years despite a difficult economic climate.
He presents her with what he calls his “favorite book” — a blank volume for children of all ages to express their creativity.
“This is sort of symbolic of your next few years, in helping us write a really good story,” Reynolds says.
On her way out of the store, Warren crouches down and scratches a golden retriever resting on the sidewalk.
“Brinkley’s voting for you,” says the dog’s owner, Mark Halperin, a retired dentist from Dover.
Warren scratches the top and bottom of Brinkley’s head with both hands.
“Oh, good. Otis will be glad to hear that,” she says to the master as she continues scratching the pet. “Awww, yeah. . . . Such big hearts.”
Warren makes her way briskly down High Street. As she passes the county administration building, employees on the second floor give her a standing ovation from the window. She stops at a crowd of supporters holding signs in front of a weekly farmers market.
“Thank you so much for running,” Dan Greenberg of Needham tells her. “It’s a battle, and every time that you’re personally attacked my family takes it personally.”
* * *
Greenberg’s comment points to Brown’s frequent focus over the final weeks of the campaign on Warren’s personal and professional integrity. “She’s not who she says she is,” the narrator intones in his campaign ads, a suggestion echoed by Brown on the stump and in aggressive performances at debates.
The allegations — that Warren exaggerated her Native American lineage and used it for professional advantage; that she represented the interests of big corporations against the ordinary people she promises to represent – have led Warren to air commercials defending herself and lambasting Brown for going negative.
As she campaigns, though, Warren and her supporters sometimes seem to go out of their way to acknowledge Brown’s personal appeal.
“I don’t have anything bad to say about Scott Brown,” says the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, at an event in Roxbury where black clergy announce their support for Warren. “I believe he is a nice guy.”
“Scott Brown is not a bad guy,” echoes Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, in backing Warren.
“I think that Scott Brown has some good votes,” says Sheila Bair, the former chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and a lifelong Republican, as she endorses Warren at a Dorchester credit union.
The implication is clear: You do not have to hate the guy to vote against him.
* * *
Tom Petty’s rock anthem to defiance, “I Won’t Back Down,” blares from the speakers as Warren takes the stage at the sprawling banquet room of Coral Seafood restaurant in Worcester.
“Now look, Scott Brown has some good votes,” Warren tells a crowd of about 500 supporters packed in the hall. “But too often, Scott Brown takes votes that are not good for workin’ people.”
She waits for the partisan boos to abate.
“We know what this race is about,” she cries. “They say ‘I got mine and the rest of you are on your own.’ We are a better people than that!”
The Coral is awash in cheers.
Brown, she says, does not want her to talk about his record of support for the big guys.
“Well, I gotta tell ya,” she cries. “It’s not going to work because we are going to talk about how Scott Brown voted!”
He let the interest rate on student loans double, she says. “Me, I want to go to Washington to fight for our kids!”
She ticks off the votes she says he made against women — on equal pay for equal work, insurance coverage for birth control, and the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court.
“I can’t believe I have to say this in 2012: I’m going to Washington to stand up for women!”
Her speech always ends with a reference to the attacks.
“They’re going to say everything they can, they’re going keep throwin’ it and hurlin’ it and smearin’ it, but here’s what I want you to hear: I am not afraid.”
Five hundred people stand and roar, waving their signs.
This crowd, on a rainy Friday in Worcester, finds her way more than likeable enough.