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In debates with Geoff Diehl, Elizabeth Warren shows signs of a 2020 campaign

Senator Elizabeth Warren and candidate Geoff Diehl shook hands for the camera before their Oct. 19 debate at the studios of WBZ-TV. Warren was aggressive in the first two debates this cycle. Warren and Diehl debate again Tuesday.Michael Swenson for The Boston Globe

When she takes the stage Tuesday night for her final debate against Republican challenger Geoff Diehl, Senator Elizabeth Warren is likely to once again aggressively and directly attack the Whitman Republican.

It probably won’t be because she fears he’s gaining ground; the latest Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll shows her with a 22-point lead in the closing days of the race. Rather, analysts see it as yet another way the Cambridge Democrat is working to position herself for an all-but-declared run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.

“It has absolutely nothing to do with Geoff Diehl and everything to do with speaking to the Democratic base across the county,” said Scott Ferson, a Democratic strategist, of Warren’s performance during the first two debates.


The way Warren approached Diehl in the first two debates was “a preview of how she would take on Donald Trump,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist. “She’s been armed to the teeth with facts, prepared for every argument, takes every opening, and takes the fight directly to Geoff Diehl.”

Warren acknowledged in late September that she will “take a hard look” at running against Trump in 2020 after her re-election campaign is over — an unusually candid admission for a politician actively asking voters to give her a second term in the Senate in the meantime. Diehl has attempted to capitalize on Warren’s ambitions in his campaign, including in debates, by arguing the state deserves a senator who won’t spend the next two years chasing national ambitions.

Warren and Diehl will have their final debate — hosted by WCVB-TV, The Boston Globe, the University of Massachusetts, and two Western Massachusetts news stations — Tuesday at 7 p.m.

In the first two debates, Warren often acted like a scrappy underdog, not a complacent incumbent. She came armed with detailed opposition research on Diehl’s past positions and activities – in the second debate, for instance, she quoted back to him verbatim statements he made on an obscure online conservative talk radio show expressing support for offshore drilling along the state’s coast.


She interrupted him and interjected sarcastic comments. And any chance she could, Warren tied Diehl to the president. In the first debate alone, she said Trump’s name 21 times, according to a Globe count.

Warren’s debate work fits within what analysts see as her efforts to lay the groundwork for a 2020 bid. She has criss-crossed the country lending her liberal star power to Democrats running in key House and Senate races. A few weeks ago, she traveled to Georgia to stump for Stacey Abrams, who is vying to be the first black woman governor of the deep south state.

Warren’s most recent FEC filing detailed her continued financial largesse, too, showing that she wrote big checks to more than a dozen state Democratic parties, including those in key primary states of South Carolina, Iowa, and Nevada. (The latter got $50,000 from Warren.)

That Diehl, who was cochair of Trump’s campaign in Massachusetts, hews closely to the president on policy and other matters has given Warren plenty of opportunity to road test her 2020 strategy on the debate stage. So does the fact that Trump is so deeply unpopular in Massachusetts: Nearly 65 percent of Mass voters said they disapprove of the job Trump is doing in the latest Suffolk/Globe poll.


“Diehl is quite literally a mini Donald Trump,” said Erin O’Brien, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “Diehl’s trying to lodge similar attacks at her that Donald Trump has and will if she runs in 2020.”

In previous debates, Warren has argued that Diehl (and Republicans more broadly, including Trump) are only interested in making government work for the thinnest slice at the top — whether it be the GOP-passed tax cuts or calls to cut Social Security and Medicare spending or efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act — whereas she wants to “level the playing field for hard-working people.”

Warren has also sought to draw a contrast between herself and Diehl — and Trump — on the issue of transparency. In both debates, Warren has stressed that she has put 10 years of her tax returns online and challenged Diehl to do the same.

“Geoff Diehl has put exactly the same number of tax returns out in public as Donald Trump has — zero,” Warren said in the first debate.

“What [do] you got to hide?” she pressed moments later.

Warren also used the transparency argument to deflect continued questions about her claims of Native American ancestry, suggesting this is a strategy she would use with Trump.

“I’ve put out 10 years of taxes, I’ve put out my hiring records, all the papers that anybody could find,” she said. “I’ve put out my family history, shoot, I even took a DNA test. It’s there. I am an open book.”


Republicans at the national level also see Warren’s debate strategy as something of a dress rehearsal for her presidential ambitions.

“The answers were primed for a 2020 Democratic audience. Save for a handful of Bay State specific questions, it felt as though you could insert X PRIMARY STATE into any of her responses instead of Massachusetts,” Sarah Dolan, communications director for America Rising, a Republican opposition research super PAC that has targeted Warren and other Democrats seen as likely 2020 contenders, said in an e-mail.

“Because her Senate race isn’t closer, these debates give her an opportunity to fine-tune her attacks for the presidential primaries. This whole Senate run has been a launching pad for 2020,” said Colin Reed, a Republican strategist, who served as press secretary for former Massachusetts GOP Senator Scott Brown. And she’s a good debater, he said, noting she earned a debate scholarship to George Washington University out of high school.

But when the Democratic primary officially gets underway, Warren may not be as strong as she looks as when she goes head-to-head against Diehl. “It’s not just going to be enough to bash President Trump because everyone is going to be doing that,” Reed said.

Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.