CHARLESTON, S.C. — Her dismissal from a job 48 years ago had been catapulted into the news by a conservative media outlet, and she herself had just ignited a fresh round of hand-wringing about her willingness to court big donors for the Democratic Party if she is the presidential nominee.
So as Senator Elizabeth Warren faced a knot of reporters after a walking tour of an environmentally degraded neighborhood here on Wednesday, she had to work to keep the focus on the matter at hand. “Did anyone,” she asked pointedly, “have a question on environmental justice?”
Warren’s steady climb in the polls is drawing increasingly frequent barbs from her rivals and heightened scrutiny of her every move, opening up a new phase for a disciplined candidate that could distract voters from the core message and policy proposals that have helped propel her rise.
But as the heat picked up in recent days, Warren’s strategy — as shown in her remarks in South Carolina this week — has started to emerge. While the idea of combat has long been central to Warren’s political brand — the word “fight” is in her campaign slogan and two of her book titles — she appears to be carefully picking her battles.
She has largely ignored jabs from her Democratic opponents while saving her fire for attacks more central to her political identity — an approach that seems intended to project strength and focus ahead of a potential contest with President Trump while downplaying her Democratic rivals.
Warren strongly fought back when the conservative Washington Free Beacon questioned the accuracy of a story she frequently tells on the campaign trail, turning it into a galvanizing moment for her female supporters. At the same time, she declined to respond to overt or subtle criticism from Democratic rivals like former vice president Joe Biden, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, even though it is something she could face more of on the debate stage Tuesday in Ohio as her opponents scramble to change the trajectory of the race.
“The clock’s running out,” said Colin Reed, a Republican strategist who worked on Scott Brown’s unsuccessful Senate race against Warren in 2012. “I don’t think she’s going to implode on her own”
Warren is now essentially tied with Biden for the front-runner’s spot, and she could stand to benefit from Trump’s apparent focus on the work of Biden’s son, Hunter, in Ukraine.
Warren did not immediately comment in the Free Beacon’s story on Monday, which surfaced about records that showed her contract for her first teaching job was extended — challenging her oft-told story of being dismissed because she was pregnant.
Republicans hoped that would undercut her authenticity. But by Tuesday, she had used an interview with CBS to explain she was pushed out verbally later in her pregnancy, and took to Twitter to transform the story into a broader discussion about pregnancy discrimination, which was rampant before Congress banned it in 1978, but still exists today.
As women defended Warren and shared their own experiences with the issue, her campaign felt so confident it had beat back the story, it sent out a fund-raising e-mail highlighting the issue: “Right-wing media outlets are dismissing my story — and in doing so, dismissing many similar stories of other women.”
Warren’s allies have used the incident to draw favorable comparisons between her and Biden, who responded tentatively as Trump began making unfounded claims about his son’s activities in Ukraine before he finally called for the president’s impeachment this week.
“He comes out of a generation of Democratic politicians that tends to be a little more cautious,” said Mike Lux, a former staffer for Biden’s 1988 presidential campaign who supported Warren during her fight to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
“Elizabeth, I think, is used to hitting back harder and faster,” Lux said, recalling the words from a sign he kept on the wall when he worked on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign: “Speed kills.”
Last week, her campaign also used Twitter to respond quickly to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s leaked vow to fight her efforts to break up big tech companies, and to cheekily debunk a smear from right-wing activists who falsely said she had dated a much younger man and called her a “cougar.” (In the post, she pointed out that she graduated from the University of Houston — “Go Cougars!” — and promoted her plan to cancel student debt).
Warren has had more trouble responding to attacks in the past. She struggled to beat back questions about her claims of Native American ancestry in 2012. Her attempt to dispense with them once and for all by taking a DNA test last fall was widely viewed as a political disaster.
And she may face more attacks from Democratic rivals looking for ways to stop her momentum. But, so far, her campaign has been reluctant to train its machinery on those rivals, even as their criticisms have become more pointed.
On Wednesday, for example, Biden seemed to take a dig at her policy proposals while speaking at a campaign event in Manchester, N.H.
“We’re not electing a planner,” Biden said, adding, “There is no one in this race who has a stronger record of passing important, consequential legislation than I have.”
Other candidates, including Bennet and Buttigieg, have repeatedly knocked Warren on Medicare for All. Speaking in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Bennet said Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has acknowledged it would require tax hikes, and called on Warren to “be honest.”
Warren, apparently unwilling to proffer a sound bite that says she wants to raise taxes to pay for health care, has repeatedly said Medicare for All would bring people’s overall costs down.
And on Monday, in an interview with the Globe, Buttigieg said Democrats face problems in the general election if they nominate a candidate like Warren and Sanders, who support Medicare for All, which would eliminate private insurance in favor of a universal, government-run health plan.
“What Americans don’t want is to be kicked off their plans,” Buttigieg said. “If folks think that this Medicare for All plan is something it isn’t, then I think we could be set up for trouble.”
Buttigieg also suggested that Warren — who has not criticized him — could be too combative to win over the general electorate.
“I worry about a tone being set up where it almost seems like fighting is the point,” he said. “We need to find a way to bring Americans back together.”
Warren’s unwillingness to tangle with other Democrats is a shift from her political persona during much of her Senate career, when she called out other Democrats and even President Barack Obama if she did not agree with them.
Now, unlike some of her rivals, she barely mentions her Democratic opponents on the trail or in fund-raising e-mails — nor does she tout her poll numbers.
“One of their mantras is, they don’t want to feel like they are subservient to the news cycle,” said Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist who has previously worked with members of Warren’s campaign team.
That attitude extends all the way to the candidate herself, who has said she doesn’t read the news much, including Twitter.