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Elizabeth Warren faces a harsh reality after disappointing finishes

Updated 8:33 AM ET, Thu February 13, 2020

(CNN) - The walls are closing in on Elizabeth Warren.

After a devastating fourth place finish in New Hampshire Tuesday night, the Massachusetts Democrat's path to her party's nomination for president has drastically narrowed. It is a bleak new political reality for the senator, who was topping national and early state polls as recently as a handful of months ago, and at her peak, seemed to have unstoppable momentum.

Instead, the first two Democratic contests in Iowa and New Hampshire showed that progressives are coalescing around Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who won New Hampshire and came in a close second place in Iowa behind former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. To add insult to injury: Warren's Senate colleague, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, rode a late surge into a surprising third-place finish Tuesday night with more than double Warren's vote share.

The pair of disappointing finishes leaves Warren treading water in a muddled race, with the Nevada caucuses -- a contest where her campaign had long hoped her populist message would resonate -- just 10 days away. Only a fraction of the delegates that will decide the Democratic primary have been awarded, but no candidate in modern political history has overcome such dire finishes in the first two contests.

Warren's publicly stated plan for now? Run a marathon. Her campaign insists they have every intention of sticking it out through the Super Tuesday contests in early March, pointing to the vast majority of the delegates that are still up for grabs and touting their large organization and investments across the country -- a tenuous strategy that could become unfeasible if her fundraising dries up. The candidate and her advisers have also shown no indication that they plan to make substantive changes to Warren's anti-corruption, "big structural change" message -- a message that made Warren a progressive icon long before she decided to run for president, but ultimately wasn't enough to win over voters in Iowa and New Hampshire most preoccupied with defeating President Donald Trump in November.

Mixed messages

Unlike former Vice President Joe Biden, who left New Hampshire for South Carolina before the final results were in, Warren stuck around on Tuesday night long enough to address supporters at her election night party in Manchester. She also stayed for one more photo line with supporters -- a signature facet of her campaign.

In a speech that began and ended before the state was officially called for Sanders, Warren offered an unusually stark assessment of the race.

"The fight between factions in our party has taken a sharp turn in recent weeks, with ads mocking other candidates and with supporters of some candidates shouting curses about other Democratic campaigns," Warren said in Manchester. "These harsh tactics might work if you're willing to burn down the rest of the party in order to be the last man standing. They might work if you don't worry about leaving our party and our politics worse off than how you found it."

For Warren, the solution was simple: Come together and win. If Democrats "fall into factions," she warned, they will "squander" their opportunity to unseat Trump in the fall. It was a message Warren has been pushing in earnest for weeks, centered around the importance of party unity to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.

But her words on Tuesday clashed with the tone of a pointed new memo released hours earlier by her campaign manager, Roger Lau, which included a section he described as a "sober look" at her competitors' prospects.

Sanders, he argued, "starts with a ceiling that's significantly lower than the support he had four years ago" and "hasn't yet faced the scrutiny of his record that will surely come with any further rise"; Biden is now "now polling under 30% even among older voters and African-American voters"; Buttigieg has trouble up ahead in "states with more diverse electorates"; and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, despite "getting a well-deserved look from voters for the first time," lacks the 'infrastructure' to sustain her in a long race."

From there, Lau dug into the campaign's plan to accumulate delegates across the map and, by his estimation, eventually end up in a three-way race with Sanders and Biden, the only early favorite she has finished ahead of in the first two contests.

"It's not a straightforward narrative captured by glancing at a map, and the process won't be decided by the simple horse race numbers in clickbait headlines," Lau wrote, jabbing the media's coverage of the early state contests. "That's never been our focus -- our focus is on building a broad coalition to win delegates everywhere."

But the campaign did not win any delegates in New Hampshire, where Warren fell short of the 15% threshold. And it left Iowa with only 8.

The writing had been on the wall for weeks, if not months.

Lau, in a separate memo last month, emphasized the importance of the post-February states. By then, public polls had already made it clear that Iowa and New Hampshire were starting to look tough for Warren.

"We expect this to be a long nomination fight," he said, "and have built our campaign to sustain well past Super Tuesday and stay resilient no matter what breathless media narratives come when voting begins."

A long, hard fall

Warren had been riding high throughout the summer, rising to become the leader in Iowa by September. But that surge made her the top target of more moderate contenders, who sought to portray her plans as unrealistic in an effort to stoke voters' doubts about her candidacy.

She never quite seemed to regain her footing.

During a mid-October debate in Westerville, Ohio, Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar used Sanders' frankness about the fact that taxes would go up for middle class under his "Medicare for All" plan, which Warren had embraced, as a cudgel against the Massachusetts senator, who kept insisting -- without fully explaining how -- she would not do the same.

"At least Bernie's being honest here and saying how he's going to pay for this and that taxes are going to go up," Klobuchar said at one point. "I'm sorry, Elizabeth, but you have not said that, and I think we owe it to the American people to tell them where we're going to send the invoice."

Buttigieg, who was then locked in a battle with Warren for college-educated voters, also pounced -- attempting to portray her as a shifty creature of Washington.

"This is why people here in the Midwest are so frustrated with Washington in general and Capitol Hill in particular," Buttigieg said, noting Warren's refusal to give a straight "yes" or "no" answer to the tax question.

"Your signature, Senator, is to have a plan for everything -- except this," Buttigieg said. "No plan has been laid out to explain how a multi-trillion hole in this Medicare-for-All plan that Senator Warren is putting forward is supposed to get filled in."

With the pile-on mounting, Warren made a fateful decision. Less than a week after the debate, on October 20, Warren announced that she would release a financing blueprint of her own.

A day later, as she tried to keep the focus on an unrelated education plan, reporters at an event in Iowa fired off questions about the structure and timing of the forthcoming plan. Visibly exasperated, she asked repeatedly if anyone wanted to discuss her education rollout, before ultimately addressing the issue that was dominating the headlines.

Warren would, over the coming weeks, release two plans -- one to pay for Medicare for All that included no hike in middle class taxes, and another that marked a firmer break with Sanders. Instead of pushing the legislation written by the Vermont senator -- which she had cosponsored on Capitol Hill -- she decided to effectively break it in half, with a promise to massively expand public health insurance during her first days in office, then push to pass the bill in its entirety by her third year in office.

The shift angered some progressives, who believed she was backing off her position, and emboldened moderates, who continued to rail against the program's cost and question whether it was a promise anyone could deliver on in a divided Congress.

Warren's standing on the left was further complicated when CNN broke the news before January's debate in Iowa that, in a private meeting more than a year earlier, Sanders had, according to Warren, said that he did not believe a woman could win the presidency. Sanders denied making the claim. Warren insisted he did. Progressives groups panicked and, onstage after the debate, Warren accused Sanders of calling her "a liar on national TV."

"You know, let's not do it right now. If you want to have that discussion, we'll have that discussion," Sanders said in an exchange captured by studio microphones.

"You called me a liar," Sanders continued. "You told me -- all right, let's not do it now."

Both campaigns sought to turn down the heat in the days after and, during an event in South Carolina to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., marched together, arm-in-arm.

They have been going in separate directions ever since.


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