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Elizabeth Warren fires up progressives from coast to coast

For someone who says she's not running for higher office, the progressive champion sure has been racking up a lot of frequent-flyer miles lately.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren
Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during the state Democratic convention in Worcester, Mass., on June 13, 2014.

For the left, it's been a summer of Warren-palooza.

In recent days, Elizabeth Warren has been in West Virginia and Kentucky, stumping for red-state Democrats who've openly embraced her populist message. The Massachusetts senator is now headed to Detroit to headline a big progressive confab on Friday, then to Los Angeles to speak at a Hispanic one; in between, she's stumping for her party's Senate candidate in Michigan. All that on the heels of a spring book tour that took her across major cities on both coasts, plus Chicago. 

That's an awful lot of frequent-flyer miles for a lawmaker who's not running for higher office right now, or any time soon, as she continues to insist.

"A lot of people may have felt like they were alone in their struggle, and she’s been vocal about it."'

A new group called Ready for Warren is now pushing her to run for president in 2016. “Warren is the backbone that the Democratic Party too often forgets it needs,” the group said on its website. But even if she takes a pass, progressives are hoping that Warren's tough-on-Wall-Street message will help set the Democratic agenda.

“The work Senator Warren is doing right now is tapping into a huge pool of energy around preventing income inequality, taking on Wall Street," says Ilya Sheyman, executive director of Political Action. "She's demonstrating that she can rally huge segments of Democratic base and have a conversation directly about these issues that energizes and excites people."

The growing enthusiasm for Warren may stem from liberal frustration with the Democratic establishment and skepticism about the progressive bonafides of the perceived frontrunner, Hillary Clinton. While Clinton has spoken recently of "the cancer of inequality," she's also stumbled on questions of her personal wealth, which hasn't helped her attempt to embrace economic populism.

Warren herself continues to insist that she's not gunning for higher office. "I am not running for president," she's repeatedly said. But that formulation, it’s been pointed out, carefully sticks with the present tense. And when asked directly, she hasn't explicitly ruled out a future presidential bid.

Warren has struck an increasingly combative tone as she's moved from her book tour to the campaign stump, accusing Republicans again and again of siding with plutocrats instead of ordinary Americans. At a DC conference on Wednesday, she urged young progressives to challenge those who voted down her bill to lower student-loan interest rates, paid for by a minimum tax on millionaires.

She told them the questions they should ask the Republicans who killed her bill. "Who do you work for? Do you work for those who hire armies of lobbyists and lawyers? Do you work for the millionaires and billionaires who’ve already made it big? Or do you work for the people who go out every day and bust their tails to try and have a chance to build their future? That’s the fundamental question facing our country."

Warren has brought the same populist brio to red states like Kentucky as well, where she recently campaigned for Alison Lundergan Grimes, who's challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and in West Virginia for Democratic Senate hopeful Natalie Tennant. “Our job is to fight for the families of America," Warren said at a West Virginia event on Monday, according to The Washington Post. “Stitch up the tax loopholes so that millionaires and billionaires pay at the same tax rate as the people in this room.”

Progressives are betting Warren's pugnacious style and signature issues could animate young voters who've come of age during the Great Recession—and may have soured on President Obama as their savior. Student loan reform is "a pocketbook issue that our generation cares about," says Jennifer Wang, policy and advocacy manager for Young Invincibles, a non-profit first formed to support the Affordable Care Act. "A lot of people may have felt like they were alone in their struggle, and she’s been vocal about it."

Activists also credit Warren for helping to push Democrats to the left on Social Security, rallying for its expansion rather than the cuts that the White House had proposed during deficit reduction talks. They’ve been thrilled to see her continue challenging federal officials on the Wall Street bank bailouts, as she did this week with Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen. And they believe that she will continue to pressure the party to embrace a progressive agenda on issues like income inequality.

Even if she doesn’t run in 2016, her supporters will demand it, says Sheyman of MoveOn. “What’s clear is progressive voters will make clear they want a vigorous primary debate.”