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Warren to walk fine line in appealing to both Mass. voters, nation in speech

Elizabeth Warren will have to walk a fine line between appealing to Democrats nationwide and voters at home in Massachusetts in her address to the Democratic National Convention Wednesday night.

The rising Democratic star was chosen to introduce former President Clinton in part because her campaign has embodied the main message the Democratic Party is offering at its convention this week: that it's the party fighting for the middle class against big business and corporate influence in politics. The former consumer advocate has framed herself as just that — an advocate — and she frequently refers to herself as a crusader for working families.

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She's also running for a Senate seat Democrats want to win back. But, despite her position as one of the darlings of the Democratic Party, she’s struggled to gain an advantage on incumbent Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.). Although President Obama is well-liked in the deep-blue state, Brown is too, and his campaign has been careful to fashion him as the centrist everyman battling an extreme, elitist Harvard professor.

Warren’s chief strategist told the Boston Globe that she won’t be mentioning Brown by name, and will instead focus on broader themes of the national election. A Democratic operative familiar with Warren’s message confirmed that she’ll be offering viewers not just her personal story, but also making a case for Obama. She worked closely with his administration to establish a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

“She's going to talk about her own personal experience, but she's also going to talk about the broader issues as far as what the contrast is between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney,” the operative said.

The operative added that her speech will be an opportunity for her to introduce herself to voters by telling her “personal story,” and said there are “millions of families with which that’s going to resonate.”

“This is going to be her talking to voters directly. She's going to be there up on the stage, telling her story, unfiltered,” the operative said.

Ironically, Warren's task tonight could be much the same as GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's was during his acceptance speech last week: to humanize herself. Thomas Whalen, an associate professor of social science at Boston University, said that she has had some trouble connecting with voters, and Wednesday's speech could offer her an opportunity to do so at a national level.

“She's a little too stiff on the stump. She's a little too dour and sour. She needs to kind of invite people in” with the speech, he said.

The Brown campaign and Republicans have worked diligently to frame Warren as out of touch with average Massachusetts voters, labeling her at every opportunity the "Harvard professor.” That's in part because one of Brown's greatest assets in the staunchly blue state is how relatable he comes across, interacting with voters in off-the-cuff campaign experiences and producing ads that feature him chatting with average Massachusetts citizens.

Warren’s speech comes, too, as Tuesday night’s tribute to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) remains fresh in viewers’ minds. The cinematic tribute received rave reviews from Democrats and pundits alike, and Warren herself invoked the legendary Massachusetts politician in a speech to state delegates on Wednesday.

Massachusetts Democratic consultant Charlie Baker suggested Kennedy’s national appeal could provide a framework for Warren’s remarks tonight, as Massachusetts voters like to see their politicians as effective on a wider scale as within the state.

“Massachusetts has a history of voting for senators who can take a national leadership role, so to the extent that she projects that she will focus like a laser beam on the middle class, I think that's a good thing,” he said.

However, more than 50 percent of Massachusetts voters were unaffiliated with a party in 2010, and a speech touting her liberal bona fides given at the Democratic convention could backfire with independents, which both candidates need to win to take the election. The most recent Democratic poll gave Brown a 26-percentage-point margin with independent voters. And Massachusetts Republican Party spokesman Tim Buckley warned that while Warren’s positions might play well with the national party, they could hurt her at home.

“Professor Warren is known at home for three things: being a fake Indian, being the intellectual founder of the radical Occupy movement and also being the originator of this anti-free-enterprise, you-didn't-build-it movement. Now, those three things may get you top billing at the Democratic National Convention, but in a state where over 50 percent of the voters are independent, that hurts your chances,” he said.

Those three things aren’t necessarily how Warren and Democrats would characterize her position, but they’re exactly how Republicans have characterized Warren, and her speech could offer them ample fodder for continued messaging on her “extreme” viewpoints.

But her big moment could also be a wash: it’s opening night for the NFL, and Massachusetts voters could tune in to football rather than the convention. Even if they do, however, Warren’s speech is likely to play in Massachusetts both on the front pages of local papers and in soundbites on local news broadcasts Thursday.

It’s a speech that, if she ends up winning her fiercely close race in November, could be remembered along the same lines as then-state Sen. Barack Obama’s 2004 convention speech.

But if Warren fades into the background after a loss in November, her speech and her high-profile position in the party will likely fade with her.