DETROIT -- As Elizabeth Warren delivered the keynote address Friday at the progressive Netroots Nation conference here, her surroundings had all the trappings of a presidential campaign launch.
Outside of the ballroom where Warren spoke, supporters with the unaffiliated group Ready For Warren distributed “Elizabeth Warren For President” signs and hats to enthusiastic throngs of people; later, the convention center hosting Netroots would be littered with the swag. Supporters tweeted out a kitschy music video, “Run Liz Run.” And when people met in the halls, “Hello” was replaced with, “Did you see Elizabeth speak?”
Warren, the senator from Massachusetts who has become the standard-bearer for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, isn't running for anything, at least not yet.
It doesn't matter. Progressive Democrats are freshly encouraged that Warren's gravitational pull will move other Democrats, such as Hillary Clinton, to fight for and campaign on the same issues.
“What I believe we're going to see (in 2016) is the Wall Street Wing versus the Warren Wing, and the question's going to be, where does Hillary ultimately land?” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive group Democracy For America. “She's been in the Wall Street Wing for a long time, and it's really exciting to see her giving winks and nods towards the Warren Wing now, but she's got to deliver on it.”
For Clinton, the winks and nods have grown more pronounced. When she appeared recently on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart to promote her new memoir, “Hard Choices,” Clinton immediately steered a discussion about her personal wealth to the broader question of how to address inequality nationwide -- an issue that has hardly been her signature.
“I worry that other people, and particularly younger people, are not going to have the same opportunities that we did,” Clinton said.
Stewart afterward marveled at “how easily you pivoted from that into inequality in America.”
The script is already changing, too, on the campaign trail in advance of the 2014 midterm elections, as Democratic candidates -- even those in traditionally Republican-leaning states -- invoke populist issues under the inequality umbrella, including the minimum wage, equal pay for women, and student loans.
Warren has encouraged it by her visible presence on the stump for Senate candidates, pushing her signature causes along the way. On Thursday, Warren hyped Rep. Gary Peters, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Michigan, at a fundraiser in Detroit shortly after her Netroots keynote.
“When Republicans say, ‘I’ve got mine, the rest of you are on your own,’ what we say is, ‘It is time to fight back,’” Warren said. “Gary is a fighter, and that’s what we need in the U.S. Senate.”
The message was consistent with that of Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who just two years ago struck a moderate tone in her own re-election fight, but who was suddenly sounding a lot more like Warren.
“We are in a fight for our country, we really, really are,” Stabenow told the crowd in introduction to Warren and Peters. “We are in a fight for our values, we're in a fight for whether or not we're going to have a middle class.”
After the speeches were finished, a line of supporters crowded the front of the room for a chance to meet Warren. Like a candidate, she shook every hand and grinned for every photo with every giddy Democrat.
They liked her. But they really gushed over her ideas.
“She stands for everything I believe,” said Laurie Bowman, sort of in awe.
Ilene Orlanski, who also stood in line to meet the celebrity senator, couldn’t think of a single issue on which she disagrees with Warren. But was she ready for Warren to run for president?
“Yes and no,” Orlanski waffled. “I think a woman should run for president. I’m not going to commit myself.”
As long as the candidate agrees with Warren, well, that’s really what matters.