Deval Patrick is arriving at the party just as the early guests are starting to leave, and Elizabeth Warren is frantically looking for her next move.
Barely two months before the New Hampshire primary, a presidential campaign that should be coming into focus looks as opaque as it has at any point, and two Massachusetts candidates are searching for the way forward.
After a summer in which Warren appeared to be the most dynamic Democratic candidate, the narrative of her campaign has shifted. Now she is the candidate who inspires worry among the party faithful as much as any other emotion, the policy nerd who may have ridden the wave of fresh ideas as far as it will carry her.
The turning point for her candidacy is easy to pinpoint: the day she decided to put a $20 trillion price tag on a Medicare-for-All proposal that voters have greeted with either indifference or outright fear. That was pretty much when her rise turned into a plateau. Now, Pete Buttigieg is surging in Iowa and New Hampshire, while Warren is holding steady but no longer growing.
Patrick, meanwhile, is bouncing among the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina in a bid to generate some momentum for his late-starting campaign. Though what he really needs isn’t “momentum’’ — it’s millions of dollars in hard currency And he needs it soon, before he becomes another starry-eyed dreamer who couldn’t get onto the debate stage where the real campaign is happening.
Warren had a striking moment a few days ago in Iowa, where she gave an emotional answer to a young woman who asked about the challenges she has faced. She spoke of the end of her first marriage, and how hard it was to break it to her mother that the union that was supposed to propel her to success, in her family’s eyes, was coming to an end. Predictably, some people later wrote about how Warren had cried. But her campaign seemed to view it as touching, immediately promoting it on social media.
Part of the strategy of releasing so many detailed plans about what she would do as president was to pivot away from her biography — and the whole problematic issue of her Native American heritage and whether she used it to get ahead.
But you don’t white-paper your way to the presidency. Voters want to know — or feel that they know — the person, too. Warren has already talked extensively about her family’s hardscrabble days in Oklahoma. But in the weeks leading up to actual voting, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more intimate glimpses of Warren’s life, and less talk about tax rates. (Though I don’t think we’ll hear more about her years at Harvard, which she seems to have all but disowned in her bid to repackage herself as a daughter of the heartland.)
The question for Warren, maybe unanswerable for now, is whether there are enough hard-core progressive Democratic voters to propel her to the nomination. Her vulnerability is to the center, where Joe Biden and now Buttigieg are chasing voters who want a return to “normal” (whatever that is) but aren’t sure they really want big, structural change.
Patrick’s challenge is more daunting, but also simpler. He has to introduce himself to voters who know little about him, while also building enough of an organization to take flight in the early states. It’s a lot to do at once, especially for a candidate who hasn’t run in nearly a decade and has never been exceptional at raising money. Breaking out of the pack in this race has been hard for nearly everyone.
Just ask Kamala Harris, who may have had the best kickoff of anyone, but dropped out Tuesday.
Warren may yet regain her footing, while Patrick is searching for his. But in a race in which no one seems able to seize control, they’re hardly alone in searching for the inside track.Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. E-mail him at email@example.com. Or follow him on Twitter @adrian_walker.