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Political Ads Highlight Warren's Ambivalent Relationship with Occupy

On Nov. 9, Crossroads Grassroots Political Strategies, a political action committee founded by strategist Karl Rove, launched its first attack ad against Harvard Law School Professor Elizabeth Warren, seeking to tie the senatorial candidate to the national Occupy movement.

“Instead of focusing on jobs, Elizabeth Warren sides with extreme left protests,” the ad said, simultaneously showing dramatic images of protesters carrying red banners.

The ad draws from a September story in The Daily Beast in which Warren said that she supported the movement and that she had “created much of the intellectual foundation for what they do.”

Warren made her career as a tough advocate for increasing regulation of Wall Street and financial instruments, a message that has dovetailed with the central concerns of the Occupy movement.

Nonetheless, Warren has walked a careful line with regard to the movement, taking care not to fully endorse the protesters while staying on message with a populist political rhetoric that rails against inequality, big banks, and the state of the economy.

Only a few weeks after The Daily Beast article, Warren refused to sign a pledge of support for Occupy Harvard. But when Crossroads released the ad seeking to tie Warren to Occupy, she fired back with a fiesty ad of her own that underlined her populist message while taking care to avoid mentioning Occupy.

“For years I worked to expose how Wall Street and the big banks are crushing middle class families,” she said in the ad.

But while some members of the Occupy movement say that they understand why Warren has not publicly embraced the movement, they argue Warren shares several significant goals with the movement.

The Occupy movement—at Harvard and nationwide—has no spokesperson or single message, but Ed Needham, a member of the Occupy Wall Street public relations team, called Warren one of the key “thought leaders” of the movement and explained that Warren and Occupy try to tackle the same problems in different ways.

“It’s a challenge that has to be approached from all sides,” Needham said. “Those who can work within the system and make change go with God’s blessing. We have to find our own way—this movement is an eruption of civic energy. Civic energy is going to mean what it means to each person.”

If she defeats incumbent Senator Scott Brown, Warren may come to represent a powerful voice in the Senate for the issues at the heart of the Occupy movement. But publicly embracing the movement carries political risks for Warren, who has been described by her Republican critics as an overly liberal, out-of-touch Harvard professor.

Summer A. Shafer, a Harvard graduate student and member of Occupy Harvard, acknowledged that tension and argued that Warren should distance herself from Occupy “because of the way popular movements are portrayed as cranks and dirty hippies without jobs.”

“Insofar as any of the Occupy movements can be characterized that way by your opponent, you are actually doing a disservice to that social movement if you’re going to stand by it and lose as a result,” Shafer says. “If she can distance herself now from Occupy and win, what she’s going to be doing is going to be representing everything we want.”

In her matchup against Brown during an election year that is likely to favor Republicans, Warren faces the challenge of reclaiming the moderate voters who punched their ballots for Brown in 2010 when he pulled off an upset victory against Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, which may make her less likely to tack to the left by publicly backing the Occupy movement.

Warren, who entered the race in September only nine points behind Brown, passed him in the polls last month. She now holds a seven-point lead, according to a poll conducted by the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and The Boston Herald from Dec. 1 to Dec. 6. State Rep. Thomas Conroy, Warren’s last major primary competitor, dropped out of the race on Monday, leaving Warren as the presumptive Democratic nominee.

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