Elizabeth Warren Seeks a Second Act After Slip from Top

BOSTON — Faced with questions about her viability in a general election and ceding ground to opponents in the primary, Senator Elizabeth Warren is abandoning her above-the-fray approach and delivering her most forceful and direct criticism yet of her Democratic opponents.

That is one of a series of adjustments Ms. Warren is implementing as she seeks to recapture the energy and excitement of the late summer and early fall, when she emerged as a top contender for the nomination. Over much of the last two months her ascent has stalled as opponents, led by Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., have questioned her stance on “Medicare for all” and portrayed her far-reaching policy agenda as a ripe target in a potential matchup against President Trump.

Now Ms. Warren and a Boston-based campaign team that has long resisted snap reactions to the day-to-day developments of the primary are nodding to the reality of a reshuffled race with no true front-runner. Her campaign is leaning into her role as the leading woman in the race and she is directly engaging with Mr. Buttigieg, after months of preferring to pick fights with the billionaire critics of her populist proposals.

Entering December, Ms. Warren has overhauled the format of her town halls in pursuit of more organic moments to connect with voters. She has zeroed in on the billionaire former mayor of New York City, Michael R. Bloomberg, as a leading villain in her tale of corruption and inequality in America, running an ad and appearing on his own television network to needle him.

And, for the first time, she has challenged Mr. Buttigieg by name, demanding that he disclose the wealthy contributors gathering money for him and open his private fund-raisers to the news media. After days of pressure from Ms. Warren, Mr. Buttigieg’s campaign agreed Monday to do both.

“They’re just saying the quiet part out loud now,” said Adam Jentleson, a Democratic strategist close to the Warren campaign.

The new, aggressive phase amounts to an acknowledgment that Ms. Warren’s penchant to pull her punches for much of the year has run its course. It is also an effort to move past damaging questions about her plan to pay for Medicare for all, a sweeping transformation of health care that would abolish private insurance.

After her dip in the polls, Mr. Buttigieg has now overtaken her in the crucial state of Iowa, which has always been at the center of Ms. Warren’s path to the nomination, even more so than New Hampshire, where a win might be discounted given her neighbor status as a Massachusetts senator.

Behind the tactical maneuvering is the search to answer a simple, urgent question: How does Ms. Warren, who captured the imagination of progressives with her ambitious policy plans, continue to drive the political conversation now that she has rolled out all of her biggest plans?

Ms. Warren’s core anti-corruption message remains unchanged, and several of the new flourishes seemed designed to amplify it. Her argument that Mr. Buttigieg must disclose his bundlers is cast as a concern about corruption, as are her attacks on Mr. Bloomberg leveraging his multibillion-dollar fortune.

She began airing two new ads in Iowa this week that touch on corruption, and this Thursday, she will deliver a speech about corruption and the economy in New Hampshire.

The Warren campaign declined to comment.

In particular, Ms. Warren is pressing to ward off concerns that her call for “big structural change” is too much, too fast. “Fear and complacency don’t win elections,” she has taken to saying. Yet a growing worry among Warren allies is voters — including some at her own events — who say they love her agenda but have concerns about her appeal with crucial swing voters elsewhere.

Michael Winnike, a 65-year-old from West Point, Iowa, who came to a recent Warren town hall in Ankeny, Iowa, described himself as a left-of-center Democrat but said, “I’m not sure left of center can win.” He was especially uneasy about Medicare for all.

“I think this country needs a good enema,” Mr. Winnike said, pausing for a moment before adding, “but this country probably works best when it’s gently pushed.”

The surprise exit of Senator Kamala Harris of California from the race last week delivered Ms. Warren a fresh opportunity as the lone female candidate among the top four leaders, which include Mr. Buttigieg, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont (Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is also competing aggressively in Iowa). While Ms. Warren had already built her three biggest campaign speeches around the history of leading American women, she has noticeably injected more references to gender into her campaign since Ms. Harris quit.

Ms. Warren has bought dozens of Facebook ads featuring Ms. Harris and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York in recent days, lamenting that two women are out of the 2020 race while Mr. Bloomberg has joined. She updated her website to name-check the contributions of both Ms. Harris (on abortion) and Ms. Gillibrand (on paid family leave). And she pledged to wear a pink Planned Parenthood scarf at her presidential inauguration, as she did at Mr. Trump’s.

“Tough women know how to get things done,” Ms. Warren said in a speech last week at a Democratic Party fund-raiser in Boston, offering praise for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that doubled as a pitch for herself. “Tough women unafraid of holding this president and this administration accountable.”

Castigating the billionaire class remains a crucial part of her campaign. Her “billionaire tears” mug is the best-selling item in her campaign store. There was such demand — and a shortage of white, union-made mugs — that a blue version was rolled out. Now both are on back-order.

But Mr. Biden and Mr. Buttigieg, the leading moderates, have raised questions about the expansiveness of Ms. Warren’s agenda. In one recent ad in Iowa, Mr. Buttigieg critiqued those calling for free college as she has, and he pitched his own “big ideas” that could be achieved without “turning off half the country.”

One group that has endorsed Ms. Warren, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, surveyed its members in recent weeks and found that there was apprehension about her electability. Adam Green, a co-founder of the group, blamed Mr. Buttigieg’s attacks.

“Pete’s use of false talking points hatched in insurance industry focus groups has temporarily scared some electability voters who psych themselves out by trying to predict what other voters will think,” Mr. Green said.

Mr. Buttigieg has pitched his proposal as “Medicare for all who want it,” offering an option for public insurance to compete with the private sector.

Ms. Warren had originally endorsed Mr. Sanders’s health plan, rather than roll out her own. But at the October debate, her opponents pushed her on whether she would raise middle-class taxes. Ms. Warren repeatedly dodged, speaking only about overall costs in what allies now say hurt her brand as a wonky truth teller.

Two weeks later, she released a financing plan that taxed only the wealthy and corporations — her favorite foils. Two weeks after that, she announced a transition plan that would delay phasing out private insurance until later in her administration.

“It’s scaring people off,” Connie Johnson, a 78-year-old in Knoxville, Iowa, who came to a recent Warren town hall, said of Ms. Warren’s health plan.

Over the weekend in New Hampshire, Ms. Warren ripped a line from Mr. Buttigieg’s script in defending her plan, saying she would be offering voters a “choice,” at least in the first step of her transition plan. “We’re going to ‘Medicare for all’ for everyone but we’re going to give all people the choice to buy into the system,” she said.

One potential upside of Ms. Warren’s recent slide is the dampening expectations in Iowa, where two months ago she was seen as the candidate to beat. The caucuses remain a tossup, according to almost everyone, while Ms. Warren still boasts an operation that Iowa officials describe as perhaps the most robust in the field.

The candidate most immediately in her way there is Mr. Buttigieg.

In addition to sparring on health care, Ms. Warren and Mr. Buttigieg have traded transparency demands as he called for her to release her taxes from more than a decade ago (late Sunday, she instead listed her compensation from private clients when she was a law professor) and she demanded his bundler list. Mr. Buttigieg has also gotten the go-ahead from McKinsey & Company to disclose the clients he worked for at the firm from 2007 to 2009.

The flare-up between Ms. Warren, who is running to the left, and Mr. Buttigieg, who is running to the center, is a sign of how the multidimensional primary is now breaking down along demographic as much as ideological lines. Ms. Warren and Mr. Buttigieg have been favorites of an influential cohort in the Democratic Party — white, college-educated voters — who hold particular sway in the less diverse early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Beyond those opening contests and Mr. Buttigieg, the looming obstacle for Ms. Warren — and everyone else in the field — remains Mr. Biden, whose support among black voters and working-class whites has remained durable despite uneven performances on the campaign trail and at the debates.

“The great mismatch that’s happening right now is Biden looks like he could beat Trump on paper but not in person,” said Mr. Jentleson, the Warren-supporting strategist, “and Warren looks like she could beat Trump in person but not on paper.”

Astead W. Herndon contributed reporting.

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