BROCKTON, Mass. -- It's a year out from the 2012 Senate race in Massachusetts, but Elizabeth Warren, janitor's daughter, Harvard professor, founder of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and scourge of Wall Street, is working the VFW Hall in this depressed former mill town as though the election were tomorrow.
"Hiya," she says cheerfully, her voice containing only a slight trace of her Oklahoma roots, as the laid-off government employee, the debt-ridden law student, the grandmother who can't afford to retire -- all of them self-proclaimed members of Massachusetts' middle class -- line up to tell Ms. Warren their tales of woe.
Then Ms. Warren is introduced to the crowd to a standing ovation. But when she starts to speak about why she's challenging incumbent Sen. Scott Brown, she is interrupted by a tea party supporter who blasts her support of Occupy Wall Street.
"... if you're the intellectual creator of that so-called party, you're a socialist whore," says the man. "I don't want anything to do with you," he shouts before storming out.
The "S" word is already in GOP ads here, and a harbinger of the white-hot battle next year for the hearts and minds of middle class voters in Massachusetts.
Mr. Brown, a 52-year-old former state senator who beat the widely favored Democrat, Attorney General Martha Coakley, to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy in a January 2010 special election, is widely seen as a "regular guy."
He mostly hews to the GOP's strong anti-tax-and-spend, small-government philosophy while touting his bipartisanship. He started out with high approval ratings, but they have slipped to just under 49 percent from 58 percent more than a year ago -- still a relatively high number for a Republican in a mostly Democratic state.
Ms. Warren, 62, still has to win the Democratic primary on Sept. 18, 2012 (ahead of the Nov. 6 general election). But even GOP strategists say she presents an unusually compelling candidacy. She's a blend of opposites: a populist and a policy wonk, a cheerful grandmother with a gift for explaining complex financial issues in plain language.
Ms. Warren "can legitimately claim to be a consumer advocate" for the middle class, said Boston-based Republican strategist and commentator Todd Domke. "Almost any pol will claim that, but she has a track record -- she has devoted herself to taking on corporate interests. Brown is unusual, too, because he won both based on his persona and on his message, which was that of an average Joe, a David taking on a Goliath in a one-party state, who spoke the simple truth."
So, just whose middle class is it, anyway?
Is it the electrician's from Marshfield, south of Boston, whose home is worth $1 million but who is so deep in debt he can't afford to retire and showed up to volunteer for Ms. Warren?
Or is it the comfortably retired garage owner's? The guy who scrimped and saved and worked 60-hour weeks to build his own business in the small city of Fitchburg, and now, as a registered independent, voted for Scott Brown?
Or is it the disaffected 30-year-old college educated single mom's? She's angry at being charged $6 by the Bank of America to cash her $150-a-week paycheck -- and last time voted for no one.
"I need my paycheck every week," said Steve Pineault, the 67-year-old electrician from Marshfield. "And whoever can put more money in my pockets is going to get my vote."
The stakes are huge.
Massachusetts has never been a swing state in presidential elections, but it became absolutely pivotal when it elected Mr. Brown nearly two years ago, wiping out the Senate Democratic 60-vote filibuster-proof majority -- and any chance President Barack Obama could pass his agenda without significant Republican support.
Ms. Warren has never run for public office, but Mr. Brown was also relatively untested when he beat Ms. Coakley. ("I'm Scott Brown. I'm from Wrentham. I drive a truck. And I'm nobody's senator but yours," he told cheering supporters on election night.)
His amiable demeanor and attractive, successful family -- his wife, Gail Huff, was a popular Boston TV news reporter and one of his two daughters was a semifinalist on "American Idol" in 2007 -- sharply contrasted with his humble roots and chaotic childhood. In his biography, he wrote that he came from a broken home, he was beaten by his stepfather and his family moved 17 times when he was young. Even his famous 1982 picture spread in Playgirl didn't hurt him -- he noted it helped him pay his way through law school.
Ms. Warren has an equally compelling backstory: Her parents lived on the "ragged edge" of the middle class in Oklahoma, she said. Her mother went to work after her father, a maintenance man, had a massive heart attack when Ms. Warren was 12, and within a year she was waiting on tables to help support the family. Married at 19, she raised two children and went to law school and then had a stellar teaching career culminating in a "fancy-pants school," as she described Harvard to the volunteers in Brockton.
Her resume is formidable: she was chairwoman of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) after the 2008 financial crisis, and she essentially designed and created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
She's anathema to business groups, thanks to her calls for toughening regulations and tax systems that she believes favor big corporations and the wealthy while penalizing small businesses and the middle class. After she set up the consumer bureau, the GOP Senate minority signaled they'd never provide the confirmation votes for her to head it.
So she went back to Massachusetts and announced she'd run for the Senate, betting that middle-class anger would fuel her campaign-- and it has, says Ralph Whitehead, a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts, noting that in one recent poll the level of support for Warren was almost equal to Brown's.
Ms. Warren "has been documenting and publicizing the anti-Main Street behavior of Wall Street for years," said Dan Payne, a Boston-based Democratic political strategist and commentator. "If she wins a seat in the Senate, Republicans who threatened to block her appointment are going to be kicking themselves because the rock thrower will be inside the house of glass."
Democrats smell an opportunity and are pouring money into the state -- they spent $3 million in "issue" advertising before the first Republican ad went up earlier this month.
National Republicans are mounting a $150 million effort across the country, aiming not only to keep Mr. Brown in the Senate but also to gain control of it by winning other Senate seats.
Mr. Brown, who wasn't available for an interview for this story, has kept a busy schedule of events, appearing at street festivals, before business or veterans groups, or strolling down a street with Boston's popular former mayor, Raymond Flynn -- but he has not held a public town meeting yet, and he won't shift into campaign mode until February or March, his aides say.
Ms. Warren has been working the state for volunteers; she got 1,000 at a recent event in Roxbury. While Ms. Warren outdid Mr. Brown in fundraising in August and September -- $3.1 million to his $1.55 million -- the Republican nonetheless boasts a $10 million war chest, taking more money from the financial industry -- $1 million -- than almost any other senator, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Even as the heckler's invective echoed down the cyberchambers of YouTube and Huffington Post and the 11 o'clock news for weeks after that meeting, Ms. Warren added 200 new volunteers to her campaign that night, including Marilyn Buckner, 62, who was laid off from her job in the health care sector a decade ago. She and her recently retired husband get by, but now are struggling to help her daughter, a college graduate saddled with debt who was laid off from her job a year ago.
"I've never worked for a candidate," said Ms. Buckner, a registered independent, as people filed out of the VFW hall. "I've never sent money to anyone, but when I saw that video of her, I wrote a check. She's plainspeaking, not trying to snow people with a lot of adjectives."
The viral video Ms. Buckner is referring to was taped at a house party in Andover last summer. Shaking her fists, Ms. Warren declares: "There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. ... Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless -- keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay it forward for the next kid who comes along."
Those words have resonated with her supporters, but the GOP has also used them, contending in one recent ad that the "you" she was talking about were "employers, business people, risk takers, job creators."
Ms. Warren "wants to create more government jobs by increasing government spending to create consumer demand and Brown wants to cut spending and taxes to allow increased private sector spending to create consumer demand," said state Rep. Dan Winslow, who holds Mr. Brown's old seat in the Massachusetts state house.
Mr. Brown does cross the aisle sometimes, providing a swing vote in support for the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill which created the Consumer Financial Protection Agency -- but only after he threatened to vote no unless the bill was stripped of a $19 billion bank tax -- and for repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," much to the fury of the state's relatively small tea party organization.
Nationally, Massachusetts is perceived as a Democratic state -- it went for Mr. Obama by 62 percent in 2008, and is expected to give him a similarly wide margin next year. But it has elected plenty of Republican governors, and registration figures belie the notion of a one-party state: 36 percent are Democrat, 12 percent are Republicans and a whopping 52 percent are independent.
That's largely due more to convenience than political conviction. Voters can list themselves as Democratic or Republican if it's a primary, and then list themselves as "unenro lled," or Independent, on Election Day.
Usually those independents have voted for Democrats, but in the 2010 special election, white, non-college educated voters -- many of them in the blue-collar, smaller cities outside I-495, which circles Boston -- went 63 to 37 percent for Mr. Brown, compared with white college voters who went 51 to 49 percent for Ms. Coakley, according to data from the Washington-based Hart Research Group.
"What he managed to do was say, 'Look, I'm part of you, I'm part of the 64 percent of voters in this state [who are independent or Republican]. The Democrats are only 36 percent,' " said David Paleologos, a pollster at Suffolk University in Boston.
In 2012, Ms. Warren and Mr. Brown will by vying for that same group of Independent, non-college voters.
That battle will take place in cities like Fitchburg, which voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 and Mr. Brown in 2010.
There, white voters without college degrees "are deeply anxious about being members of the middle class," said Mr. Whitehead. "And Elizabeth Warren has to take some of those. She has to go around the state and talk about jobs, jobs, jobs, and he has to demonstrate that he cares more about putting money in the pockets of white non-college voters than she does."
The birthplace of Johnny Appleseed, Fitchburg is a former manufacturing center hard by the Nashua River. The General Electric plant that was once its largest employer closed years ago, and in neighboring Leominster, a onetime center for the plastics industry (and maker, until 2006, of the pink flamingo), the Foster Grant sunglasses plant is long gone.
Today, Fitchburg's biggest employer is local government, says its young Democratic mayor, Lisa Wong.
But she believes that next year's race won't be won on policy -- no matter how smartly it's explained. "That level of detail will be drowned out amidst the chaos" of the election, she said. She believes that the candidate "who makes the best case for protecting jobs and income" will win.
Mr. Brown "won Fitchburg because he made the better case that he was going to represent the middle class," said Ms. Wong, who supports Elizabeth Warren but works closely with her neighboring mayors, one a Republican, the other an Independent.
"We love people who we feel can champion for us, and Scott Brown's presence, personality and the simplicity of his message resonated with people."
One of those people was Bob Kelly, who was standing outside a Kmart with his wife, Annette, soliciting donations for the Lions Club.
"I really like Scott Brown," he said. "He's honest. He looks you in the eye," said Mr. Kelly, who proudly notes that he worked to put his four kids through college by going to work every day at 5:30 a.m. and coming home at 10:30 at night. Today, thanks to frugal living, he and his wife live in a condo and go on cruises.
"Never heard of her," his wife said.
"Most blue-collar men like Brown's towel-snapping humor on sports talk radio and his flip, wise-guy style," said Dan Payne, a Boston-based Democratic political strategist.
Actually, "the reason that Scott Brown likes talk radio is that he can speak directly to voters rather than have his message filtered through the media, which in the past has proven to have a liberal bent," said Mr. Winslow. Mr. Brown, he added, believes that "growing taxes in this economy will kill jobs and that we have to focus on cutting spending."
Yes, but if that means cutting the state's already underfunded but heavily used mass transit system, don't tell Dan Love and Tara Newman, who were also standing outside the Kmart waiting for the bus. Mr. Love, 47, is an unemployed handyman who doesn't like Mr. Brown.
"He acts like he's a movie star, and I don't trust the guy," he said. He does like former Republican governor Mitt Romney, who is now running for president. "He's a straight-laced guy, and I like that."
"A woman's got no shot in this state," he said, prompting his companion, Ms. Newman, to sputter with laughter.
A 30-year-old single mother who went to Lincoln Technical Institute to become certified as a medical biller, she couldn't find a job in the field. "They wanted five years experience, and I didn't have it. How could I?"
Ms. Newman got a job managing a Dunkin' Donuts franchise, but said she lost it because as the mother of a 7-year-old son, she couldn't work the night shift. So now she's a cashier at a nearby Burger King, making $150 a week and living with her mother, even as she fumes at the Bank of America "for trying to charge me $6 to cash my $150 check because I didn't have an account with them. That made me really angry."
So which candidate in next year's Senate race will appeal most to the middle class?
"There is no middle class," she said, as a bus pulled up in front of the Kmart. "You either got money or you don't got money. That's it."
Mackenzie Carpenter: email@example.com or 412-263-1949.