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It's good to be Ready for Warren -- just don't mention Clinton

It's been a good week for those trying to draft Elizabeth Warren into the presidential race, but they still don't know how to talk about Hillary Clinton.
Hillary Clinton appears at an event on Oct. 23, 2014. (Photo by Bryan Smith/Zuma)
Hillary Clinton appears at an event on Oct. 23, 2014.

It’s a good time to be Ready for Warren -- just don’t mention Hillary Clinton.

When the extended network of activists hoping to draft Sen. Elizabeth Warren into the 2016 presidential race gathered in Washington, D.C. on Saturday for a lefty organizing conference, they felt confident -- “electric,” as one put it.

Just a week ago, even some involved in Ready for Warren saw it as a fun, if modest, project. But on Tuesday, two of the biggest liberal grassroots groups in the country, and Democracy for America, joined the effort to draft the Massachusetts senator. On Friday, more than 300 Obama campaign alumni signed a letter urging Warren to get in the race. And over the course of the week, Warren’s star power reached new highs as she led the (ultimately doomed) progressive revolt against a government funding bill that included pro-Wall Street provisions.

Related: Elizabeth’s Warren moment

At a panel Saturday organized by the groups involved in the draft Warren effort at the Roots Camp conference, a summit of 2,000 liberal political organizers and techies, anything seemed possible. “If you would like to go to Iowa and change the world, we will find you a futon and feed you pizza three meals a day!” said Ben Wikler,the MoveOn organizer who is leading the group’s new $1 million campaign to draft the senator. They’re hiring people in key presidential states and plan a big kickoff event in Des Moines on Wednesday.

Ready for Warren brought a life-sized cutout of the populist senator as Katniss Everdeen, the symbolic leader of the rebels in the "Hunger Games" film series. Warren is "catching fire," they joked. 

But as they build enthusiasm for Warren, her supporters still seem unsure how to talk about the proverbial donkey in the room (these are Democrats, after all): Hillary Clinton. The presence of the presumed front-runner for the Democratic nomination could be felt, even if her name was hardly mentioned.

No one on the panel dared speak the words “Hillary Clinton,” and she came up only in a question from a member of the audience. Erica Sagrans, the campaign manager of Ready for Warren, referred to Clinton as “that other candidate.”

The same was true at a panel earlier in the day organized by climate activists. Despite being titled “#HillaryProblems,” problems with Hillary Clinton were mentioned only in two, fleeting moments.

Asked about the lack of mention of Clinton after the Warren panel, Wikler declined to utter the name of the former secretary of state. “We’re running a pro-Warren campaign. This is a campaign to get her in the race. It’s not an anti-anyone campaign,” he said.

Pressed again, he repeated: “It’s a pro-Warren campaign.”

“We’re thinking in a Warren-centric way,” added Robel Tekleab, a Iowa-based veteran of Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign who is now Ready for Warren’s point person in the state.

During the panel, Chuck Rocha, a Democratic strategist who worked on John Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign, said most Democratic politicians have failed to connect emotionally with people like him -- he’s a Southern Latino with working class roots who talks “like a redneck.” But not Warren. “There’s a populist message out there that was not being spoken about until Elizabeth Warren got on the Senate floor and talked about it,” he said.

Even though she’s talking about obscure financial regulations, she’s makes people feel like she can “speak to them,” said Rocha, something he said he’s rarely seen since Clinton's husband was president.

Sagrans said the pro-Warren movement was inspired in part by Occupy Wall Street and the protests movement against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s cuts to public sector worker pensions in 2011.

But even if the panelists avoided Clinton, attendees did not. One, a local organizer, said, “I think we need to be not just ready for Warren, but also need to be ready for unity.”

The thousands of mostly young progressives here seemed receptive to the draft Warren message, and Clinton and her own allies were largely absent.

Ready for Hillary, the super PAC working to draft the former secretary of state into the presidential race, was heavily involved in the Netroots Conference, which attracted a similar crowd in July, but ceded the ground at RootsCamp this weekend. The super PAC had no significant presence at the conference. Nickie Titus, Ready for Hillary’s digital director, appeared on a panel on the mechanics of digital organizing with Warren digital director Lauren Miller, but Titus did not linger for long afterwards. 

Mitch Stewart, the former Obama campaign field guru now working with Ready for Hillary, made an appearance Saturday, but on panel discussing gun control and the National Rifle Association, not 2016.

Warren 2016 fans were plentiful, meanwhile. Ready for Warren hosted the conference’s big after-party Saturday night, and passed out t-shirts and buttons and other paraphernalia.