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Warren's primetime speech affirms fans' faith in her star power

Not just any first-time Senate candidate gets to address the Democratic National Convention in prime time. One must be a certifiable rising star in the party to get that kind of platform.

It was Barack Obama at the 2004 convention in Boston, and on Wednesday night Harvard Law School professor and Massachusetts Senate hopeful Elizabeth Warren will get her chance.

TODAY's Savannah Guthrie sits down with Massachusetts Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren to discuss  Ronald Reagan's famous campaign question on whether Americans are better off now than they were four years ago, and how President Obama will justify four more years in office.

Running to unseat Sen. Scott Brown – the first Republican elected to the Senate from Massachusetts since 1972 – Warren has become a kind of cult hero to progressive Democrats across the country. In fact she’s become the face of that progressive wing. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee PAC is offering limited edition T-shirts with the slogan: “I’m from the Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party.”

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Her crusader role and passionate national following is reminiscent of the fervor that Howard Dean inspired in his bid for the Democratic nomination in 2004. Warren’s charismatic appeal is based on her being so well suited to this particular moment – with many Americans still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis and dubious about the bailout that followed.

Warren, an expert on bankruptcy law, was one of the leaders in the push for creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Bill Titelman, a lawyer and veteran Democratic donor from Harrisburg Pa., who attended a Warren fund-raising event at the Mint Museum in Charlotte Wednesday morning, said, “her whole background has been one of studying and understanding the economic justice issues in our country and particularly the issues involving the banking system and Wall Street.”

He added, “Lest we forget, we’ve just come through a period of time where the average American lost 30 to 40 percent of their net worth due to the conduct that occurred on Wall Street. Elizabeth Warren understands those issues, she understands the practices that have gone on like nobody else and she can really play an enormously influential role in the Senate in correcting the abuses that have worked to turn to so many American essentially into indentured servants for the banks.”

Top Talkers: The Morning Joe panel – including New York Magazine's John Heilemann, Time's Mark Halperin and Mike Barnicle – is live in Charlotte for the DNC, and they discuss new polls that has Romney leading in N.C., the Democratic Party platform, and the Massachusetts Senate race between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren.

MarDee Xifaras, a lawyer from New Bedford, Mass., another Democrat attending Wednesday’s Warren fundraiser, said Warren was “an immensely grounded, real person. She does not forget her roots, her humble background, she sees that she has received opportunities that should be available to all and she feels passionately about that.”

Referring to the fallout from the financial crisis, Xifaras said, “This is complex stuff – all the stuff that took us to the cliff, and for many people threw them over the cliff, and for many other people put them on shaky ground. “

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Xifaras represents clients whose houses are “under water” and who have been trying to refinance. “Elizabeth Warren understands those issues really well, but more importantly than just understanding, she can translate them into normal regular ‘how does it affect your life?’ terms.”

Former Rep. Paul Hodes of New Hampshire, himself an unsuccessful candidate for the Senate in 2010, said Wednesday, “The reason she holds such a special status is because of her fierce advocacy around the financial collapse and her push to hold the financial community – or certain people in the financial community – accountable for what occurred during the financial collapse.”

John Brecher / NBC News

Former U.S. Representative Paul Hodes is a New Hampshire delegate to the Democractic National Convention. Picture taken on Wednesday, Sept. 5 in Charlotte, North Carolina.


He said Democrats see her as “someone who is willing to take the tough job of remaking regulation of the financial industry and holding it accountable to the American people for the damage that was inflicted.”

Brown won the 2010 special election (to fill the vacancy created by Sen. Ted Kennedy’s death) against state Attorney General Martha Coakley. So in one sense the Warren-Brown contest is a kind of repeat: a woman who is an accomplished lawyer running against “regular guy” Brown, identified by his 2005 GMC Canyon truck and his unassuming patter.

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In another sense, it's something more than that: Brown's 2010 victory gave Democrats a shock partly because it seemed to indicate voters were rejecting President Barack Obama's agenda – not only on health care but on criminal trials for accused terrorists, which Brown made an issue in the race – and this happened so soon after Obama had become president. To be able to defeat the man who bruised Obama would be sweet revenge.

But “it’s so different this time around,” said Xifaras. “Last time he was the only race for the conservative, Tea Party forces. It was like a political tsunami. No one knew it was there ten days out.”  This time, she said, Democrats are far better motivated and prepared for battle.

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Also at Wednesday’s Warren fundraiser was Rep. Jim McGovern, D- Mass., who said, “Scott Brown’s a likeable guy, he’s a popular guy, but that doesn’t mean people will vote for him. This election is about more than the truck you drive or who you want to have a beer with.”

Republicans have succeeded in making much of the news media coverage about Warren and the controversy over her claim to be of Cherokee ancestry. And some of Warren’s supporters acknowledge that the race so far has been more about her than about Brown.

But McGovern said, “As people begin to see what’s at stake, more and more support is going to gravitate to Elizabeth. It doesn’t mean people don’t like Scott Brown; but it means they’re not going to vote against their self-interest. Having Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader is not in the interest of anybody in Massachusetts.”

Warren’s starring role on Wednesday night and her appeal to the “Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party” will be one way to excite the progressive Democratic base to work harder from now to Nov 6.

But Warren’s clout will match her charisma only if she can bring back disaffected Democrats who voted for Brown in the 2010 special election. The important voters who remain to be convinced will not be in the convention arena Wednesday night or watching at the house parties sponsored by Progressive Change Campaign Committee in Seattle or Boulder, Colo., but in traditionally Democratic places such as Billerica and Westport, Mass., where Brown defeated Coakley in 2010.