The Memo: Warren faces crucial moment in Iowa

The Memo: Warren faces crucial moment in Iowa
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It’s crunch time for Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDimon: Wealth tax 'almost impossible to do' CNN's Don Lemon: 'Blow up the entire system' remark taken out of context Democrats shoot down talk of expanding Supreme Court MORE (D-Mass.) in Monday’s Iowa caucuses.

Warren’s polling numbers have fallen since her peak last fall, when she was seen as a front-runner for the nomination.

She has struggled to rebound, becoming mired for several days in an inconclusive dispute with Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOutrage erupts over Breonna Taylor grand jury ruling Dimon: Wealth tax 'almost impossible to do' Grand jury charges no officers in Breonna Taylor death MORE (I-Vt.) over whether he told her during a private 2018 dinner that a woman could not be elected president.

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Warren is now fourth in the polling averages for Iowa and New Hampshire. A resurgent Sanders, her rival for left-wing support, is well-positioned in both early states.

Sanders has thrown off the air of stagnation that had at one point surrounded his campaign and has shown renewed vigor following an October heart attack. He has also been helped along by the endorsement of progressive icon Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezWells Fargo CEO issues apology after saying there was a 'limited pool of Black talent' Brand responds to Trump claim protesters throw tuna cans at police: 'Eat em, don't throw em' CNN's Don Lemon: 'Blow up the entire system' remark taken out of context MORE (D-N.Y.), the brightest rising star on the left. 

But even though Warren has fallen from her peak, she retains considerable strengths — including a formidable ground operation in Iowa — that could enable her to vault right back into contention.

The polls are fluid, too. A new Iowa State University survey, for example, showed the Massachusetts senator running second in the Hawkeye State, 5 percentage points adrift of Sanders but ahead of former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden on Trump's refusal to commit to peaceful transfer of power: 'What country are we in?' Democratic groups using Bloomberg money to launch M in Spanish language ads in Florida Harris faces pivotal moment with Supreme Court battle MORE and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - GOP closes ranks to fill SCOTUS vacancy by November Buttigieg stands in as Pence for Harris's debate practice Hillicon Valley: FBI, DHS warn that foreign hackers will likely spread disinformation around election results | Social media platforms put muscle into National Voter Registration Day | Trump to meet with Republican state officials on tech liability shield MORE (D).

A Sanders-Warren top two finish in Iowa would scramble the preferred media narrative of the race, which assumes an eventual battle between one of the left-leaning senators against a more centrist figure such as Biden, Buttigieg, Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharSocial media platforms put muscle into National Voter Registration Day Battle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight Sunday shows - Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death dominates MORE (D-Minn.) or former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael BloombergDemocratic groups using Bloomberg money to launch M in Spanish language ads in Florida Bloomberg pays fines for 32,000 felons in Florida so they can vote Top Democratic super PAC launches Florida ad blitz after Bloomberg donation MORE (D). 

Still, few people backing Warren are predicting outright victory in Iowa. Instead, they are concentrating on setting modest expectations that she is almost certain to meet. 

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Peter Leo, chairman of the Carroll County Democratic Party in Iowa and a Warren supporter, told The Hill on Wednesday that the caucuses are “anybody’s game.” 

He noted that a number of different metrics will be released regarding this year’s caucuses, which could give more than one White House hopeful a chance to claim victory. 

Murshed Zaheed, a Democratic strategist who is a Warren supporter but has no affiliation with her campaign, also asserted the caucuses were “a jump ball.”

Zaheed added that Warren was “in good shape. She is in striking distance. She is in the thick of it, just points away from first place.” 

By contrast, he insisted that for Sanders, “if he does not win Iowa, it is going to be a huge letdown for him.” 

That kind of expectation-setting is, of course, par for the course in all election races. In a memo last week, Warren’s campaign manager Roger Lau played down the importance of the early states, insisting that “the four early states contests are just the beginning.” 

Warren also retains other strengths.

She enjoys strong favorability ratings with Democrats overall, and is the second choice for a large number of voters. That could be particularly important in Iowa where, under the rules of the caucuses, any candidate who fails to attract 15 percent support is considered nonviable, freeing their supporters to back another candidate if they wish. 

Warren has also earned the endorsement of the biggest newspaper in the state, the Des Moines Register, as well as a much smaller outlet, The Storm Lake Times.

Warren partisans argue that she remains the best candidate to unite the party. According to this thesis, she is progressive enough to win backing from the left but not as divisive as Sanders, whose 2016 presidential campaign against eventual nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocratic groups using Bloomberg money to launch M in Spanish language ads in Florida The Hill's Campaign Report: Presidential polls tighten weeks out from Election Day More than 50 Latino faith leaders endorse Biden MORE is still a source of bitterness for some.

“Sen. Warren is unique in her ability to unite both wings of our party,” Iowa state Sen. Zach Wahls (D) said on a Tuesday conference call with reporters organized by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has backed Warren. 

Still, the dangers for the Massachusetts senator are just as obvious. 

If Sanders were to beat her by a significant margin in Iowa, he would be well positioned to repeat that performance in New Hampshire, which holds its primary just eight days later. In that scenario, there would be a grave risk for Warren that progressives would rally behind Sanders, leaving her high and dry.

There is also the question of why her campaign has never been able to climb back to its previous heights. Warren came under attack in the fall for her “Medicare for All” proposal, an assault that seems to have begun the softening of her poll numbers.

The more recent spat with Sanders has not helped her chances either.

Democrats unaligned with any candidate argue that the bar for Warren is much higher than her supporters claim. 

One such strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, insisted that she needed a top-two finish in Iowa, and an outright victory either there or in New Hampshire, to have a real chance of becoming the nominee.

“The momentum she had was clearly lost and they didn’t recalibrate,” the strategist said.

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But supporters insist there is still a clear path.

“We have no idea how caucus night is going to turn out,” said Zaheed. “Just like Sen. Warren, I have an optimism bias.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, focused primarily on Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden on Trump's refusal to commit to peaceful transfer of power: 'What country are we in?' Romney: 'Unthinkable and unacceptable' to not commit to peaceful transition of power Two Louisville police officers shot amid Breonna Taylor grand jury protests MORE’s presidency.