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Elizabeth Warren’s man in New Hampshire

Kurt Ehrenberg says he’s guided by a lesson from his father: “People need to get involved. It’s not always easy. Without people taking action and getting involved, the bad guys will win,”
Kurt Ehrenberg says he’s guided by a lesson from his father: “People need to get involved. It’s not always easy. Without people taking action and getting involved, the bad guys will win,”Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

MANCHESTER, N.H. — If Senator Elizabeth Warren needs a champion in New Hampshire, she has one in Kurt Ehrenberg.

He already has a ground-floor office rented in downtown Manchester and a three-member staff pitching a Warren 2016 presidential bid to progressive voters. Starting this weekend, Ehrenberg will dispatch groups of volunteers to hold “Run Warren Run” signs along prominent roadsides such as Market Square in Portsmouth.

Democracy for America and MoveOn.org anticipate spending close to $250,000 in New Hampshire as part of a national draft to persuade Warren to launch a presidential bid for 2016.

Hiring Ehrenberg as their state director is a big part of their strategy.

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“Kurt has a long history in New Hampshire of understanding the political dynamics and connecting with people,” said Charles Chamberlain, Democracy For America’s executive director.

Ehrenberg, who is 56 and soft spoken, has maintained a tenacious presence in New Hampshire politics for the better part of three decades. Friends and former colleagues say his experience as a campaign worker, environmental activist, and former spokesman for the AFL-CIO carries an alchemy that could mobilize voters long before they reach the polls next year.

“He has strategic vision. He is able to approach different constituencies and convince them that they have common interests and should be on the same side,” said a longtime friend, Roy Morrison. Morrison met Ehrenberg when they were members of New Hampshire Freeze Voter, an antinuclear group active during the 1984 presidential primary.

Warren has repeatedly said that she is not running for president in 2016. Ehrenberg said she still has plenty of time to decide, noting Bill Clinton did not announce his 1992 bid for the White House until October 1991.

“If she told us tomorrow definitively to quit, I think we would have to respect her wishes. I don’t expect her to tell us that in the near future. It’s still very early,” said Ehrenberg during an interview at the Red Arrow Diner.

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Ehrenberg said his plan, quite simply, is to get as many New Hampshire voters as possible to sign a petition to draft Warren. The goal is to create a grass-roots infrastructure of supporters at the ready for when (or if) Warren decides to get in the race.

“We measure our progress by how many people we are talking to and how many of those people take action,” Ehrenberg said.

He has found ways to engage voters, and sometimes unwilling candidates, over the years during the presidential primary.

In 1999, he created a news aggregator — politicaljunkie.com — that garnered national attention for a column questioning the compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush. Ehrenberg wrote about a gardener for the Texas governor who was transferred from his landscaping job after he asked to take time off to stay with his sick daughter. Traffic from the site landed Ehrenberg an appearance on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.”

As a spokesman for the Sierra Club, he both courted and criticized presidential candidates during the 2004 New Hampshire primary, pressing them to take positions on environmental issues such as mercury pollution and global warming.

“What we decided to do was make the environment a candidate,” he said. “We had campaign signs. We had bumper stickers. We were giving away compact fluorescent light bulbs to people at campaign events.”

Ehrenberg grew up in Newton, Mass., in a household that prized progressive politics. His father, Arthur, was an auto parts salesman who served as a local Democratic committee chairman. Massachusetts Governor Endicott “Chub” Peabody once came to his house for dinner.

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In the summer of 1968, when Ehrenberg was 9, his father woke him up to make him watch what was happening on television: Chicago police were fighting with protesters at the Democratic National Convention.

“My father ingrained in us this belief that I hold to this day. People need to get involved. It’s not always easy. Without people taking action and getting involved, the bad guys will win,” Ehrenberg said.

He was allowed by his parents to hit the road while still a high school student and work on the 1976 presidential campaign for Arizona Congressman Morris Udall. “I got bit by this bug at a very young age,” he said.

Whether Ehrenberg’s effort to draft Warren gains any traction in New Hampshire remains to be seen. A second Run Warren Run office will soon open in Portsmouth. Another is up and running in Iowa.

Wayne Lesperance, a professor of political science at New England College, said presidential drafts have sometimes been successful in drawing candidates into the New Hampshire primary. Dwight Eisenhower won the Republican nomination in the 1952 New Hampshire primary in an upset against Robert Taft. In 2003, Wesley Clark began his presidential bid after a “Draft Clark” campaign influenced his decision to jump in.

Progressive voters in New Hampshire are still eager to see who may step forward as an alternative to former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, assuming she decides to run, Lesperance said.

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“There will be someone who will emerge as an alternative to Hillary,” Lesperance said. “The question is, can they mount a campaign to win?”