When Elizabeth Warren calls, answer

The cellphone declared “No Caller ID” but I answered on the off-chance it wasn’t a vehicle warranty robocall.

“Hi. This is Elizabeth Warren,” the unmistakable voice on the other end hailed. This was no recording.

The senator from Massachusetts dialed up Iowa just a month before the Feb. 3 lead-off caucuses, while campaigning in New Hampshire.

She is known for ringing local politicians, activists or voters she has bumped into on the trail. She called us to thank The Storm Lake Times for endorsing her as the leading candidate of an impressive Democratic field on Dec. 11, the first newspaper endorsement of the 2020 Iowa Caucus cycle. 

We chose her because she talks that old-time New Deal religion in a way that can perhaps help save struggling places like rural Iowa, Flint, Mich., or West Virginia.

Many pundits have left her for dead since a slump from the top of Iowa this summer, following months of withering attack from her rivals and Wall Streeters terrified by her populism. 

She sounded chipper on the phone.

“I love the response I’m getting,” said Warren, who had just spoken to a packed room of 350 in Concord. She was railing against a nation in servitude to corporations that she argues sucks the life out of working America.

“We have these core questions about what kind of nation we want to be,” she said. “But sometimes I feel like I’m in an alternate universe. We face these monumental issues that nobody is even prepared to address. Everybody is in the sound-byte game. It’s frightening.”

Warren wasn’t naming names, just riffing on her progressive themes so you can fill in the blanks.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, could argue that he is addressing those same themes. 

At some point, there has to be a reckoning between Warren and Sanders for the progressive wing. Sanders’ support remains rock-solid. He may be leading in New Hampshire, and anyone might be leading in Iowa right now. I asked how she could reel in my brother in Dubuque, a union man who brooks nobody but Bernie.

Warren mustered no direct answer but offered an appeal.

“C’mon guys, this is the best chance we have to elect a real progressive since FDR,” Warren replied.

That might be the strongest statement she has made about Sanders. They have played each other so far by YMCA rules (no sharp elbows). 

She relishes parrying former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has bypassed the early states with a nationwide TV ad blitz. 

“He is short-circuiting democracy,” she said, by not pressing the flesh and witnessing first-hand the decline in so many pockets of the nation. 

Her only reflection about the rest of the field was a general rue that they are not bold enough for the moment.

Warren launched her campaign in rural Iowa last January with a visit to Storm Lake, a small county seat that reminded her of her birthplace in Wetumka, Okla. (pop. 1,700). She lamented that the town has been drying up through the years. Which prompted her to launch into an indictment of the Reagan Revolution that she considers to be at the core of America’s economic structural ills.

“In a sense, the decline of rural America is a logical conclusion of trickle-down economics,” she said. “If child-care dollars followed babies, if we could keep that community hospital open, if we could cancel student loan debt, think what a different place it would be. But this is what happens to our country when all the value goes to the top.”

She offered that she just might close her Iowa campaign where she started it, in Storm Lake and Sioux City, the most conservative and rural northwest quadrant of the Tall Corn State. 

Warren launched by declaring that she was going after every voter no matter where, and her rural outreach has been impressive in its breadth and detail. She remains confident that hers is a superior organizing network in the first state, rivaled by Buttigieg, and believes that will spell the difference in the caucuses. 

And, she defended Iowa and New Hampshire’s placement at the front of the nominating process because they force candidates into retail politics, and answering detailed questions.

“It’s democracy,” she said, “and that’s how I measure it. I am plugging holes in democracy every day.”

She noted that a man who just lost his job gave her $2 in New Hampshire.

“That means a lot. Think about it,” Warren said.

After 20 minutes she was off to her next phone call in the harried dash for every last vote, and on to the next stop for selfies by the hundreds. 

It’s that sort of retail touch that can make the difference among a field so fluid.

Art Cullen is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of The Storm Lake Times.

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