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Opinion | Michael A. Cohen

Democratic race is starting to jell

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks during a candidate forum on labor issues, Aug. 3, in Las Vegas.
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks during a candidate forum on labor issues, Aug. 3, in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP)

Las Vegas

It’s six months until the first votes are cast for the Democratic nomination for president. Yet increasingly the outlines of the race are coming into form with a flawed front-runner (former vice president Joe Biden), a rising force (Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts), a waiter in the wings (Senator Kamala Harris of California), and a fading star (Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont).

I spent time at events with each with the front-running candidates in Las Vegas last weekend, a tribute to the fact that Nevada is one of the four early-voting states in the Democratic contest.

Warren continues to stand out from the pack. At a town hall in the suburb of Henderson, she again pounded away at her powerful campaign message that moneyed interests have corrupted Washington and she has a plan to return power to the middle class.

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But while “I’ve got a plan” has become her campaign’s catch-phrase, it is her personal story that might make the difference. At every campaign event, she tells a tale of growing up in Oklahoma and the economic travails that confronted her family. But more compelling is her retelling of her experience as a young wife and mother who took a job as a waitress so she could go to college and fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher.

That opportunity changed her life, Warren says, but for too many Americans it no longer exists. Warren’s journey is an uplifting tale of the American Dream realized.

Several people I spoke to afterward, including two single mothers, told me it made Warren more relatable to them, because it showed she understood, firsthand, the struggles of ordinary Americans.

Already, Warren’s rise in the polls — the only Democratic candidate to notably improve in standing since the beginning of the year — is evidence that her plans and her story are resonating.

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The Democratic front-runner remains Joe Biden, but it’s getting more difficult to ignore the disconnect between his poll numbers and his uneven performance on the campaign trail.

Biden has had two middling debate performances and he was similarly unimpressive in Vegas. At an event at a strip mall Chinese restaurant, he looked all of his 76 years. He jumped from issue to issue with no connective tissue to hold his remarks together. Every few minutes, after meandering on, he would stop and say, “Now here’s the point,” or declare,“This is America,” as an implicit critique of the wrong direction in which Trump has taken the country.

Boomer nostalgia is at the core of Biden’s campaign, and he certainly exudes warmth and affability. Moreover, he’s always had a tendency to talk too much, exaggerate, and rely on his personal charm to win over voters. But this felt different — as though Biden’s struggles were a function not of personality but of age. There are plenty of red flags here.

Bernie Sanders remains a top contender, but it’s hard to ignore his static poll numbers, even though he has near universal name recognition. Of all the candidates, Sanders is the one that voters I speak with consistently say they are least likely to support, both because of his policy positions and his perceived lack of fealty to the Democratic Party. In Vegas, I talked to more than a few Democrats who had supported Sanders in 2016 and are now backing someone else.

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Finally, there is Kamala Harris. She is an underappreciated wonk, whose ability to delve into the nitty gritty of policy issues is Warren-esque. She has mastered the art of speaking about policy in terms that are easily accessible to voters. She is warm, gregarious, and exudes passion — and she is unafraid of taking on Trump directly. Off the cuff, at a roundtable event in Henderson, she said the “dude gotta go,” which led the crowd to chant along.

Yet this side of Harris is not yet getting through to voters. After a less-than-stellar second debate performance, Harris is back to single digits.

Harris is too good a politician not to have another breakthrough moment like she had in the first Democratic debate — and one can imagine her as a compromise candidate who combines the potential electability and affability of Biden with the policy chops of Warren. But that hasn’t happened yet, and it seems evident that Warren’s recent polling rise is coming at the expense of Harris.

It’s still a long way to the first caucus in Iowa, but if feels increasingly clear that Biden, Warren, and Harris are going to be the ones fighting it out in 2020.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.