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JOAN VENNOCHI

How Deval Patrick could outflank Elizabeth Warren in 2020

Deval Patrick campaigns for Colin Allred (background center), who is running for Congress in Texas, at Allred’s headquarters in Richardson, Texas.
Deval Patrick campaigns for Colin Allred (background center), who is running for Congress in Texas, at Allred’s headquarters in Richardson, Texas.(Kim Leeson for The Boston Globe)

She’s the “fake Indian,” more dangerous to American interests than Russia, with a voice that reminds many men of every woman who kept them from achieving the greatness they deserve.

That Republican line of attack against Senator Elizabeth Warren is already on auto-tweet. It will never stop the left from loving her — and shouldn’t. But it leaves room for other Democrats to test the presidential waters with a different style and appeal.

Enter Deval Patrick, his sweet smile and silky rhetoric. He popped up last Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” grayer than when he left office as governor of Massachusetts, but just as glib. He had no trouble fielding Jake Tapper’s question about working for Bain Capital, the venture capital firm Democrats hung around Mitt Romney’s neck. After describing himself as a capitalist, but not a “market fundamentalist,” Patrick added: “I’ve never taken a job where I’ve left my conscience at the door, and I haven’t started now.” It was a nice reminder of Patrick’s formidable campaign skills, which are powered by positivity.

Patrick, who, according to Politico, has been encouraged to think about 2020 by his friend Barack Obama, told Tapper he would make a decision “in due course.” Warren, meanwhile, is touted as one of the top-tier Democrats with a shot at winning her party’s nomination. The other top-tier Democrat is Joe Biden, who, at 75, is either your dear old centrist uncle, or your crazy one. A pack of assorted other hopefuls don’t look like heavyweights at the moment. Current rankings of these candidates are, of course, subject to change with Robert Mueller’s findings.

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Still, it’s going to take someone with fire and courage to beat President Trump. All of which may mean the road ultimately leads back to Warren. Her fearlessness when it comes to taking on the president is rightly celebrated. But — after Warren wins reelection to the Senate — all the obvious challenges to a White House bid remain in play.

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Can Warren ever climb out of the “Pocahontas” box ? That nickname, embraced by Trump, refers to the controversy over her claim of being Native American. On the basis of family lore, she listed herself that way in a law school directory and was classified by Harvard Law School as a Native American faculty member. There’s no evidence Harvard or any other institution hired her because of that. But Trump, whose own lies never end, turned questions about her ethnicity into a referendum on Warren’s honesty. And his ability to maim by epithet is well-established.

Will Democrats be taking too big a gamble if Warren can’t move closer to the center? Before Bernie Sanders used it in 2016, Warren wrote the book on progressive politics. She still has the Netroots Nation crowd by their single-payer heartstrings. Yet how far to the left she’s pegged by rivals can be a problem, if you consider Tuesday night’s election results. In Michigan, for example, a candidate for governor backed by Sanders and New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez lost to the establishment Democratic candidate.

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Warren drew the expected fire from conservatives when she recently declared at a historically black college in New Orleans that “the hard truth about our criminal justice system” is that “It’s racist. . . . I mean front to back.” Her riff, wrote the National Review’s Rich Lowry, “is a sign that the Democrats are going to leaven their lurch toward socialism with a condemnation of America as fundamentally racist.” It’s also a sign that Warren knows she has to broaden her appeal beyond white liberals.

That’s where a potential Patrick run gets interesting. His personal charm and positive message won him election as Massachusetts’ first black governor. New Hampshire is a border state for him, too. Of course, if Warren is elbowed aside by a message of hope and change, it won’t be a political first. In 2008, Obama did that to Hillary Clinton, who even then faced a well-scripted line of attack against her.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.