WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Elizabeth Warren is grabbing center stage in the 2016 presidential race as Donald Trump's most effective antagonist and Sen. Bernie Sanders' top rival for the affections of progressive voters. The combination could make Warren an indispensable ally to Hillary Clinton, in the process elevating her own stature and allowing her to draw attention to the issues she cares about most.
"She doesn't talk often. And when she talks, you should listen to her," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday, a day after Warren delivered a much-noticed speech lashing Trump as a "small, insecure moneygrubber who doesn't care who gets hurt, so long as he makes some money."
The speech at the Center for Popular Democracy gala in Washington was the Massachusetts senator's first devoted to attacking Trump, though she's repeatedly mixed it up with him on Twitter, landing punches where others have not. In response Trump has labeled her "goofy Elizabeth Warren" and referred to her as "Pocahontas," a reference to her time claim to Native American ancestry.
"We all aspire to have a nickname from Donald Trump," remarked Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
Warren is the only one of the Senate's 14 female Democrats who has not endorsed Clinton, raising eyebrows among Clinton allies. Yet her speech hit on some of the same themes that Clinton has developed in recent days, including accusing Trump of benefiting from the housing crisis, mocking his claims of being tough on Wall Street and denouncing him for refusing to release his taxes.
The Clinton campaign has tried to cultivate Warren, knowing that such attacks encourage Clinton supporters. But allies note that Warren is also focused on the long game, ensuring the next administration picks people for key posts who will work toward economic reform.
Partly because she has withheld her endorsement for Clinton, Warren is now positioned as the most credible conduit to the liberal voters backing Sanders. Democrats are increasingly concerned about the Vermont independent's determination to fight on in the primaries despite nearly impossible odds of overtaking Clinton. And increasingly they're looking to Warren to help unify the party after the June 7 primaries in California, when Clinton is expected to officially wrap up the nomination.
"I think she realizes the shared goal of everyone who is voting and participating in the Democratic primary," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. "That is, we don't want Donald Trump in the Oval Office, and I think Elizabeth Warren gets that and I think she's going to be a great asset to us now through the fall."
Warren's name is frequently mentioned by Democrats as a potential running mate. Clinton's team is beginning to vet around two dozen potential vice presidential picks. Warren's increasingly aggressive attacks on Trump and interest from some in the Clinton campaign in exploring the idea of a two-woman ticket has heightened speculation that she is a serious contender for the job.
Over the weekend Reid seemed to shoot the idea down, telling an MSNBC interviewer that he would be a "hell no" if Clinton tried to draft a senator from a Republican-led state, because a Republican governor would then have the opportunity to replace a Democratic senator. But Wednesday Reid said: "We've had two men for a long time so I'd have no problem with it."
Warren, a former Harvard professor, is a hero to the liberal wing of the party because of her attacks on Wall Street and advocacy for consumers, including pushing successfully for creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before her election to the Senate in 2012. Since joining the Senate she's forged her own course, figuring out how to get results as a freshman in the minority by skirting the legislative process and instead exerting public pressure over favorite issues like student loans.
Reid created a post for her in leadership as a conduit to liberal groups, and she's used it to train attention on issues like Social Security and pressure more establishment-minded colleagues to hold firm on Democratic principles. She's seen as a hard-worker and is well-liked, and although she came to the Senate with celebrity status she's taken pains not to exploit it in the seniority-conscious Senate, avoiding talking to reporters or grabbing the spotlight from senior colleagues.
The Clinton campaign has tried to cultivate Warren, particularly on the kinds of economic and regulatory issues championed by both Warren and Sanders. Clinton aides Mandy Grunwald, who worked on Warren's 2012 campaign, and Gary Gensler, a former chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, act as conduits between the two camps.
Thomas reported from San Bernardino, California. Associated Press writer Lisa Lerer contributed from Salinas, California.