Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) arrives at this week’s primary debate under heavy attacks from her rivals over her health care plan and with polls showing her as vulnerable as Democrats agonize over who to pick as their nominee.
Warren has catapulted herself to the top of polls as one of the candidates that most excites the progressive base, a surge that already made her a top target at the October debate.
But she arrives at the debate in Atlanta on Wednesday after suffering some potential setbacks.
She appeared to be the favorite to win Iowa just a few weeks ago, but a Des Moines-CNN-Mediacom poll this weekend showed her support slipping to 16 percent, while centrist rival Pete Buttigieg surged to the top with 25 percent support, marking the first time the South Bend, Ind., mayor led the Massachusetts senator.
Doubts are also emerging about her general election appeal after surveys from The New York Times-Siena College last month showed her trailing President Trump in a number of key swing states where former Vice President Joe Biden, who has made electability a key plank of his campaign, beat Trump.
Warren has also come under heavy fire, especially from leading moderate candidates Biden and Buttigieg, after unveiling a $20.5 trillion “Medicare for All” plan that would institute an ambitious single-payer system and eliminate private insurance.
But under a subsequent plan unveiled on Friday that sought to provide more details, Warren appeared to soften somewhat the scope of her ambition.
For example, Warren proposed a gradual move toward a Medicare for All system and also preserving private insurance coverage for a transition period, while still giving people the option of joining an expanded Medicare-type plan.
“I think her announcing the specifics on the health care plan hurt her, and created an opportunity for Biden, and now also Buttigieg,” Michael Gordon, a Democratic strategist and principal at Group Gordon, told The Hill.
“Arguably the best moment for Biden’s campaign thus far was when Warren released her payment plan for Medicare for All,’ ” he said. “That combined with some of the polls that showed her not doing as well as Biden against Trump in key swing states feels like some of the gas has been taken out of her campaign.”
Warren is still seen as one of the clear front-runners in the Democratic nomination, with polls consistently showing her among the top contenders.
But the race is still seen as fluid, with no clear favorite emerging. The field grew even bigger after former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick entered the race last week, while former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is seen as likely to throw in his hat as well.
Doubts persist about whether Warren’s unabashedly progressive platform can appeal to voters in a general election, especially on health care where the senator is advocating a substantial reform that will eventually include getting rid of private insurance.
Critics have continued to point to what they say is an element of vagueness in Warren’s health care plan, and have expressed skepticism over whether she’ll actually be able to pay for it without raising taxes on the middle class.
Responding to critics, Warren this month unveiled a Medicare for All plan that would not directly raise taxes on the middle class, and instead fund the plan through a combination of taxes on businesses and the wealthy, as well as contributions from state and local governments, among other sources.
But her proposed cost of $20.5 trillion is below the $34 trillion in new federal spending the Urban Institute recently reported would be needed to fund a single-payer program.
And 2020 rivals led by Buttigieg and Biden have still decried it as too expensive and radical.
“Despite adopting Pete’s language of ‘choice,’ her plan is still a ‘my way or the highway’ approach that would eradicate choice for millions of Americans,” Buttigieg’s communications director Lis Smith said in a statement last week.
Biden’s deputy communications director Kate Bedingfield accused Warren of “trying to muddy the waters even further” after discovering “how problematic her embrace of Medicare for All has become.”
Biden has pushed to expand and improve upon ObamaCare, while Buttigieg has proposed a “Medicare for all who want it” plan. Both candidates have voiced support for a public option.
Some strategists, however, have defended Warren’s plan, including her latest call for a more gradual approach.
“Elizabeth Warren’s plan is not flip-flopping,” Andrew Feldman, a Democratic strategist and founder of Feldman Strategies, told The Hill. “It’s actually being realistic about the political scenario in Washington.”
“Her plan ultimately gets you to Medicare for All. It ultimately gets you to what she said she wants to do, which is to eliminate private insurance,” he said.
But strategists also warn Warren will need to better explain her health care plan at this week’s debate and not risk being seen as pivoting on a critical campaign platform, with less than three months to go until the Iowa caucus.
“People want to keep their health care plan, and people are afraid of the costs of her plan,” Gordon said. “She needs to find a way to factor in those two things in terms of how she sells her plan. But if she starts changing her plan, which is at the center of her campaign, then it seems like she has no real plan at all.”