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The search for the next Barack Obama is on

Fans want Elizabeth Warren to run in 2016, but without the progressive senator aboard, there's no obvious superstar to challenge Hillary Clinton from the left.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Nov. 12, 2013. (Photo by Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times/Redux)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Nov. 12, 2013.

The hunt for the next Barack Obama is off to a slow start.

Just months away from when presidential wannabees typically announce their candidacy, Elizabeth Warren made her first trip to the critical primary state of Iowa on Sunday and hit it out of the park. But she says she’s not running for president, leaving no obvious progressive superstar to challenge Hillary Clinton from the left for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

"There's an appetite for an alternative. And there's a general sense of a bit of unease with Clinton."'

At roughly this point in 2006, Obama was already surfacing as a threat. A CNN poll taken over the last few days of October had the young senator trailing Clinton by just 11 points. “Obama has emerged as the leading rival to Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party’s nomination,” a Pew survey found in November.

Democratic leaders like Harry Reid covertly abetted the Obama insurgency, while influential mega-donors prepared to snub Clinton.

This time around, however, the former secretary of state is leaving the rest of the potential field in her dust, with at least 49 percentage points separating Clinton from her nearest challenger in every poll. Reid sends fundraising emails on behalf of the pro-Clinton super PAC Ready for Hillary. And the members of the “People Formerly Mad at Hillary Club” are lining up to open their wallets and get back in the fold.

It's Warren, however, who is the obvious successor to the Obama mantle. She excites the progressive base unlike any politician since him, has a national donor and support network, and is one of only two non-Clintons who poll in the double digits (the other is Vice President Joe Biden, who is also unlikely to run if Clinton does).  

The only problem: She doesn’t want the job. And the effort to draft her into the race is still finding its legs almost two years after Clinton's army started gathering. The base of the party may be ready for Warren, but she’s not ready for them -- and neither are many other potential alternatives.

“There's an appetite for an alternative. And there's a general sense of a bit of unease with Clinton. On the other hand, there's not a lot of people that are jumping in front of the spotlight to be ready to run an alternative campaign. Right now, there really doesn't seem to be an alternative,” said Guy Saperstein, part owner of the Oakland Athletics baseball team who is a major donor to Democratic and progressive causes.

Saperstein provided the seed money for Ready for Warren, the super PAC hoping to get Warren into the presidential race. On Friday, the Oakland-based lawyer met with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has been visiting Iowa and New Hampshire as he contemplates a presidential bid.

Warren has become a rock star on the left, with her populist-infused economic message leading many progressives to identify themselves as hailing from the “Warren wing” of the Democratic Party.

But some organizers were surprised, if pleasantly, when Ready for Warren appeared suddenly at the liberal Netroots National conference in July. There was no major outreach effort, and some found out about the group just hours before the first news articles appeared. Ready for Warren didn’t have their legal status squared away with the Federal Election Commission, so the group couldn’t accept donations during the burst of publicity they received around their creation.

It’s a grassroots effort, contrasted with the deep-pocketed and professionalized Ready for Hillary campaign, which had the benefit of starting in January 2013 when few people were paying attention.

“Our name sort of invites the comparison, but it's obviously completely different,” said Erica Sagrans, a former Obama campaign staffer who now runs Ready for Warren.

Sagrans impressed many of her peers earlier this year by managing the successful primary campaign of a 26-year-old former Huffington Post editor who took on the Chicago Democratic machine by ousting an incumbent state representative -- the daughter of the local party chairman. Sagrans’ candidate fell 125 votes short in a 2012 bid for the same seat, but pushed the incumbent to the left before taking her on again.

“Our strength is that we have momentum and excitement and grassroots energy,” Sagrans said. “The money and all that can come later.”

Some money has come in already. One day early on, an online donation of $5,000 -- a lot of money for a group that raised just $58,000 in its first three months of existence -- came in out of the blue.

On other end of the check was not a financier or lawyer. It was a 2012 college graduate just beginning a career as a Democratic political strategist named Daniel Buk. He doesn’t have a ton of money, but pours much of what he gets from a life insurance annuity into political causes he believes in, instead of the idle pursuits millennials are said to crave.

He discovered Ready for Warren on Google and made his first contribution. After getting more involved in the group, he went to write another check for $20,000 to help the super PAC secure a professional fundraiser. That makes Buk the group’s largest donor, responsible for almost 40% of the cash they brought in in their first quarter of existence.

"We obviously want Elizabeth Warren to enter the primary, but in case she doesn't, we need to make Hillary realize that she needs to expand her versatility."'

He’s even applied for a job to be Ready for Warren’s deputy campaign manager, one of at least four new jobs that will be filled sometime after the midterm elections. It’s that kind of organic enthusiasm that makes Warren one of the most compelling figures in Democratic politics.

Buk explained that he loved Warren, but that he doesn’t see his support for her as mutually exclusive of Clinton. “We obviously want Elizabeth Warren to enter the primary, but in case she doesn't, we need to make Hillary realize that she needs to expand her versatility,” Buk explained.

As Buk acknowledges, the problem for the Warren-ites is that the senator has so far said she’s not interested in being drafted. Through a lawyer, she disavowed Ready for Warren. Though a spokesperson, she’s said she does not support the effort.

Warren added her signature to a secret letter signed by all the Democratic women in the Senate urging Clinton to run. And campaigning for other Democratic candidates this year, Warren has until Sunday danced around Iowa and New Hampshire (despite requests from in the state) to avoid arousing 2016 suspicions.

But the insurgents think that just by promulgating Warren’s brand and raising her issues, they can push Clinton and the Democratic nominating process to the left.

Deborah Sagner, who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Obama and provided crucial in-kind assistance to Ready for Warren, doesn’t like the kind of ideological moderation the Clinton name represents. “If nobody runs against her in the primary, we have to find some way to get the progressive wing of the party elevated to a level that she needs to pay attention to it,” she said.

Ideological allies not affiliated with Ready for Warren agree. “Whether or not Elizabeth Warren is on the ballot, her vision and proposed responses to our country's growing income inequality crisis have made her the heart and soul of the Democratic party's grassroots base and will define the 2016 election,” said Neil Sroka of Democracy for America, a group that grew out of Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign.

And the Warren-ites are just getting started. They’re encouraged by the senator’s sojourn to Iowa, her recent 10 point jump in a New Hampshire poll, and the fact that Clinton fell behind Republican Mitt Romney in a recent Iowa poll.

Warren fans think Clinton's team has taken notice: On the stump, the front-runner seems to be giving more voice to issues of corporate power that Warren has helped put on the map.

Ready for Warren, meanwhile, will get its fundraising online and is preparing to deploy at least four new staffers after the election. Sagrans even said that some members of the Ready for Hillary finance committee have told her privately they would switch sides if Warren got in the race.

Of course, that’s still a long shot. And even the candidates who are considering a run have so far been unwilling to challenge Clinton from the left directly.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is working harder than anyone else to prepare for a run, and has a genuinely impressive progressive record after two terms at the helm in Maryland, hasn’t caught fire with the “Warren wing” yet. He has drawn contrasts with Clinton only in subtext, speaking about generational differences or the need for new leaders. “I have a great deal of respect for Hillary Clinton,” he told The Washington Post.

Biden, whom few Democrats think would actually challenge Clinton for the nomination, has also criticized the former secretary of state only suggestively, avoiding any direct assaults.

Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, an anti-war moderate who is also eyeing a bid, was critical of Clinton during a recent tour of Iowa. But he’s since softened his tone. In a major press conference he gave in Washington, D.C. last month, Webb made sure to say he was “not here to undermine her.”

Even Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, has tried to avoid discussing Clinton directly, keeping his message focused tightly on the issues he cares about.

“Nobody wants to get their head shot off by the Clinton machine,” said Saperstein. He added that he’d be very interested if California Gov. Jerry Brown, who has been discussed as a potential black horse presidential candidate, tossed his hat in the ring.

Howard Dean, who knows what it takes to run an insurgent campaign that captivates the progressive grassroots, said that candidates still have plenty of time to emerge, and that he has no doubt they will. “The race hasn't started yet,” he told msnbc. “The way we built our following is you go to Iowa and work your brains out."

Sagrans was there in Iowa on Sunday, working Warren’s rally for Democratic Senate candidate Bruce Braley, signing up a few hundred Iowans who are looking for the next Democratic alternative to Hillary Clinton.

“It’s a good sign that she was here, testing the waters,” Sagrans said hopefully after the event. Hope -- it may not be enough, but it did work for the last guy.