DES MOINES — The voter took the microphone and asked a question that drew whoops from the crowd: “How do you debate someone who isn’t interested in civility or facts?”
Elizabeth Warren, her voice raspy from a cold and her eyes twinkling, feigned impassivity.
“Did you have someone specific in mind?” she cracked.
Warren’s weekend swing through Iowa effectively kicked off the race to unseat President Trump, and Democrats energized by the possibility lined up in droves to see her. But if they were hoping to hear one of the president’s most prominent critics rip into him, they would have been disappointed: Warren pushed back against numerous aspects of his governance but rarely mentioned the president by name.
“I think that what our 2020 issue will be is how we talk about what we stand for, our affirmative vision of how we build a country that reflects our best values, and that’s what I try to talk about every chance I get,” Warren said Sunday in Ankeny, a Des Moines suburb, when reporters asked why she stopped bringing up her favored foil.
As Democrats jump one by one into the presidential primary and try to convince their party they can beat Trump, they will each have to decide how to address an incumbent with a penchant for insults and a high tolerance for the sort of scandals and political attacks that have capsized other candidates. Warren’s answer — on the stump, at least — is to cast him as a He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, using her time in Iowa to lay out a scathing picture of a dysfunctional economic and political system without explicitly naming him as the villain.
“It’s not like he’s unknown,” said Scott McCormick, 74, who showed up to Warren’s event in Ankeny wearing a blue baseball cap calling for Trump’s impeachment. “It’d be preaching to the choir.”
Trump looms so large that Warren may feel there is no need to mention him, but she had generally not been so restrained when it comes to the president. During the 2016 campaign, she called him a “selfish little sleazeball” and a “thin-skinned, racist bully.” Trump has called her “Goofy Elizabeth Warren” and “Pocahontas,” an ethnic slur he used to mock her claims of Native American heritage.
But when Warren released the results of a DNA test last fall, intended to document those claims and prove him wrong, she was roundly criticized for taking his bait and giving him more fodder for ridicule. She has continued to go after him in certain settings, such as when she tags him in her tweets about the government shutdown.
Warren’s willingness to bring up Trump by name may now depend on whom she’s talking to. Last Wednesday, she placed him more explicitly at the center of her image of Washington corruption when she was asked about him in an interview with the liberal talk show host Rachel Maddow.
“Donald Trump is an accelerant,” Warren said. “He takes a problem that has been growing and growing and growing, and sets it off and he just makes it worse than ever.”
But during her swing through Iowa, Warren’s approach was different. Even the question in Des Moines about how to debate a person who does not care about facts — an apparent reference to the president — drew an answer about creating a unifying vision.
“We have a chance now, over the next year and three quarters, to get out and talk about something we haven’t talked about nearly enough, and that is what we’re fighting for,” Warren said.
Warren and the other potential 2020 candidates watched and participated in 2016, as Hillary Clinton’s campaign crafted a closing argument that involved frequently deriding Trump as unfit for office, and then was defeated.
So now, instead of talking about Trump, Warren, in the very early going, has focused on introducing herself anew to voters. This past weekend, she also showed off a proto-campaign operation that is already showing strength, one that could be daunting to others pondering a run. She filled her event spaces to capacity, with five stops before hundreds in attendance at each, and appeared with an entourage of staff and reporters following every move.
She talked about herself as the youngest daughter of a family that struggled in Oklahoma, who dropped out of college and had children young before finding her way to a Harvard professorship. Speaking without notes, she refined her stump speech and took audience questions with the enthusiasm of a social studies teacher.
Warren touted her status as a “nerd” and pointed to bills she has proposed in the Senate — many of which have not mustered enough support to pass, given Republican control — to address problems she has identified in Washington, with the economy and with politics. Trump loomed in the background of her proposals and the image she conjured of a free-for-all in Washington, even if she did not say his name. She called for an “end to lobbying as we know it” and for federal candidates to release their tax returns, derided Republican tax cuts and efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, and called for “a constitutional amendment to protect the right of every citizen to vote.”
She decried Trump’s immigration policies without saying his name.
She was also trying to convince voters that, despite her liberal bonafides and cameos in Republican attack ads, she can appeal to a purple state with an argument centered around economics.
“I’ve got three brothers, and one’s a Democrat,” Warren said, in Sioux City Saturday morning, holding for laughs. “On those core values,” including education and preexisting conditions, she said, “we’re pretty much on the same page.”
She rarely spoke, however, of issues that could erode the president’s popularity in Iowa, including the government shutdown or his tariffs, which have reduced revenues for corn and soybean crops.
But she did utter his name in Sioux City, when a voter asked about her decision to take the DNA test and, they said, further fuel his mockery.
“I can’t stop Donald Trump from doing what he’s going to do,” Warren said, offering an answer that addressed Trump’s criticisms but not those of Native Americans and others offended by the decision to use a DNA test. “I can’t stop him from hurling racial insults. I don’t have the power to do that.”
Many voters seemed happy Warren avoided hashing it all out, personally, with the president.
“How do you comment on a lie?” asked Don Altena, a member of the board of supervisors in Buena Vista County, who watched as Warren greeted the overflow crowd outside in Storm Lake Saturday. “Let’s stay with the idea of building a platform.”
But Kim Boeke, a 65-year-old Democrat who arrived at Warren’s event in Ankeny with a Warren bumper sticker pinned to her Hillary Clinton T-shirt, said she wanted to hear Warren talk directly and pointedly about the president.
“Maybe she’s trying to avoid some kind of conflict,” Boeke said. “She needs to speak out about him.”
Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.