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Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are testing Democrats’ left turn

Senator Bernie Sanders patted Senator Elizabeth Warren on the back during an event on health care last week.Alex Wong/Getty Images

ATLANTA — It took a few minutes to find an opening, but when it came, Sen. Elizabeth Warren did not squander her best chance to connect with a heavily black audience inside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in late August.

“I was a Sunday school teacher,” said Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts and a former Harvard law professor, drawing a burst of applause before reciting from memory the verse in the Book of Matthew about helping “the least of these.”

A week earlier, at a black church in Detroit, Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont, was handed his own opportunity to show a little-known side of himself to African-Americans: the pastor who introduced Sanders highlighted the senator’s youthful activism in the civil rights movement. But when Sanders took the podium, he made no mention of his attendance at the March on Washington, his arrest during a demonstration in Chicago against segregation or much of anything at all from his biography that could endear him to the congregants at the Fellowship Chapel.

The liberal senators are often linked, spoken of in the same breath as if there is scarcely any difference between them. But as Warren and Sanders work to expand their constituencies ahead of possible runs in the Democratic presidential primary in 2020, the differences between them are becoming more marked. How their overlapping audiences sort themselves out could prove revealing about the party they seek to lead.

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It is not just the liberal white activists who crowd their public appearances, but minority voters who are pivotal in Democratic primaries.

“It’s how well you do with African-American women, that’s the key,” said Jaime Harrison, former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party.

The Democratic center of gravity has plainly shifted leftward, as Sanders demonstrated last week when the senators eyeing presidential bids flocked to his news conference to support his “Medicare for all” legislation.

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But between Sanders and Warren, there are important distinctions in political style, and whoever emerges as the dominant progressive candidate in 2020 will test how far Democrats have lurched in the two decades since Bill Clinton steered the party toward the center. The Democratic base’s choice could reveal how willing liberal voters are to disrupt the country’s political system the way Republicans did by nominating President Trump.

While hardly retreating from her jeremiads against Wall Street, Warren has taken steps toward a campaign that reflects a traditional and practical course. She joined the Senate Armed Services Committee to attain national security credentials. She is privately hosting monthly dinner seminars with policy experts to expand her command of the issues.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (center) walked to a luncheon with Democrats on Capitol Hill in Washington last week.Susan Walsh/Associated Press

And, as she demonstrated here with a reminder to King’s old congregation that “there’s Jesus in every one of us,” she is opening up about herself to satisfy the electorate’s hunger for personal connection.

Maybe even more striking than invoking Scripture, Warren is spending some time with bankers: She attended a party fund-raiser in July at the summer residence of a former UBS executive, and she recently met privately in Washington with JPMorgan Chase’s chief executive, Jamie Dimon.

Sanders is making a different bet: that in today’s Democratic Party, no such nods toward pragmatism are necessary. He is still surrounded by the same coterie of advisers, is remaining a political independent and is as convinced as ever that people will respond to his well-honed pleas to confront the billionaire class, provide health care for all and offer tuition-free access to college.

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Senator Bernie Sanders during an event on health care last week. Alex Wong/Getty Images

As he showed in Detroit, and to the frustration of some of his advisers, he shows no willingness to veer from his social justice catechism to talk to voters about his life’s journey.

Perhaps most illuminating is the difference in how the two address a pair of intertwined issues: health care and President Obama.

Defending the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature domestic legacy, is a staple of Warren’s speeches, and she takes care to salute the former president. “That’s a leader,” she said to applause in Atlanta, praising Obama for pushing through the health law.

While supportive of Sanders’s proposal for universal health care, her embrace of a single-payer system is aspirational and not nearly as central as protecting what she sees as the recent gains made to health care coverage. She is also looking for other incremental ways to expand coverage or lower the cost of care.

For Sanders, it is just the opposite: He was outspoken against Republican attempts to repeal the health law, but he is far less animated by defensive fights than by leading the movement toward a single-payer system.

As for Obama, Sanders sees the man who many Democrats believe will go down as one of the country’s greatest presidents as largely incidental to his vision. Speaking for just under an hour to thousands of supporters at his People’s Summit in Chicago in summer 2016, Sanders made only a passing mention of Obama on the same weekend that Illinois’ Republican governor was reportedly ready to sign a bill making the former president’s birthday a commemorative holiday in the state.

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Certainly, a Warren nomination would underline how ascendant liberalism has become in the party, but to put Sanders forward as their standard-bearer would suggest that Democrats want to make a far more profound break from conventional politics. The party would have edged toward his brand of democratic socialism.

“The Democratic Party is a vehicle for him, but, for better and worse, he doesn’t embrace it or claim it,” said David Axelrod, the longtime Democratic strategist and former chief political adviser to Obama. “Elizabeth is much more supportive of the party even as she works to push it left.”

It is possible, of course, that the nominee will be neither Warren nor Sanders, and there will be no showdown. The three best-known would-be candidates in a potential presidential field (to include former Vice President Joe Biden) may all run or not run at all. Some admirers believe that Sanders and Warren are close enough to have a conversation about their intentions before they make a decision.

“Whether they figure it out is a different story,” said Larry Cohen, a former head of the Communications Workers of America and an adviser to Sanders. “But would they talk about it? Absolutely.”

Some liberals are already dreading a Sanders-versus-Warren race in which they could take votes from each other. “I think it would be hurtful for the left,” said Symone Sanders, who worked for Sanders in the 2016 primary.

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The two adopted New Englanders trace their history back to when Warren, still a professor, addressed a Sanders town hall meeting in Vermont at Sanders’ invitation. But the relationship grew strained when she declined to endorse him during last year’s primary.

In public, they appear to have moved beyond any raw feelings. Warren has joined Sanders’s podcast, and she made sure to group herself with him when she addressed Netroots Nation, a progressive conference, in August.

Advisers to Warren, eager to tamp down any hint of tensions, made a point of noting that the senator and her husband, as well as Sanders and his wife, found themselves with delayed flights at Washington’s Reagan National Airport earlier this year and used the time to catch up at an American Airlines lounge.

But Sanders is sensitive to the topic of his relationship with Warren: When the journalist Franklin Foer tried to ask him about it earlier this year, “he peremptorily dismissed me from his office,” Foer wrote in The Atlantic.

Some of Sanders’ advisers, proud of how successful they were last year and determined to get their due, are less restrained.

“People talk about Elizabeth Warren, and I love Elizabeth Warren, but she doesn’t have a 50-state organization, and she doesn’t have an email list in the millions,” said Mark Longabaugh, who worked on Sanders’ primary.

Those in the party more sympathetic to Warren, however, believe that she has far more potential to expand her appeal.

“I think Senator Warren’s views are more pragmatic; I think she is very different in a conversation than when she’s on the stump,” said Robert Wolf, the former UBS executive who hosted Warren and other Senate Democrats for a fundraiser on Martha’s Vineyard this summer. And then there is the biggest difference between them.

“One advantage she does have is the ability to broaden her base out because she can speak to women’s economic issues and women’s health in a way Sanders can’t do as well,” said Anita Dunn, a veteran Democratic strategist, noting that Warren’s silencing by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, in February had propelled her toward feminist icon status.

“I bought hand-quilted ‘She Persisted’ pillows on my vacation,” Dunn said, explaining that a gift shop in upstate New York had them for sale.

Warren, clearly conscious of the symbolic power of her run-in with McConnell, has turned the phrase into her own slogan-in-waiting, and invariably finds a way to sprinkle it in her public remarks. It is the sort of personal political touch for which Sanders has shown no appetite.

“Bernie is a great American story, but have enough people heard it? Probably not,” conceded Jeff Weaver, who managed Sanders’ presidential bid.