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Centrist Dems fret about Warren's prime role at convention


Elizabeth Warren's plum speaking slot at next month's Democratic National Convention has prompted misgivings among some centrist Democrats, who worry the Massachusetts Senate candidate could turn off independent voters.

Democrats announced this week that they had tapped Warren, the former consumer financial protection czar who's challenging Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) this fall, to deliver a prime time address before a national television audience. A popular figure among progressive activists, Warren has built a reputation as an outspoken critic of the excesses of Wall Street — a kind of populism Democrats are hoping to showcase at their convention.

But some members of the party wonder if selecting a figure like Warren — whom Republicans have sought to characterize as an out-of-touch elitist and cloistered Harvard professor — might hurt the party on a national level. She will speak the evening of Weds., Sept. 5, before a famed centrist Democrat: former President Bill Clinton.

“Having someone from the more extreme wing of the party, being given the primetime slot sends the wrong message to people in the middle who are legitimately up for grabs in this race," said Pennsylvania Rep. Jason Altmire (D-PA).

Altmire is among the dwindling ranks of the Blue Dog Coalition, the group of moderate Democrats in the House. These lawmakers typically hail from rural or working class districts and favor more fiscally responsible policies and permissive gun rights.

They've seen their representation in Congress shrink, though. The caucus had 54 members before the 2010 midterm elections, which shrunk to 25 this Congress. At least seven of them — including Altmire, who lost a primary to a more liberal Democratic Rep. Mark Critz (PA) — won't be returning to Washington next year.

Altmire said that while Warren's progressivism might play well in Massachusetts, the party might be better-served by a different prime time speaker.

"If you’re trying to win over people from the center — moderates and centrists who could go either way — I would guess there are other faces you could put forward who would be better for that," he said.

Another retiring Blue Dog, Oklahoma Rep. Dan Boren, argued for better geographic representation in the convention's prime speaking slots.

“If we are going to become a big tent, we need language that speaks to fiscal responsibility, we need some speakers who are from the South, we are already winning in the coastal areas of the country,” Boren told NBC News. “if you’re going to speak to the 4 percent [of undecided swing state voters] you’re going to want somebody who can appeal to independents, I think it would be better to have somebody from more Middle America.”

But other Democratic moderates expressed a greater comfort level with Warren relative to some of their colleagues.

Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly (D), who won re-election by only 981 votes last cycle, called Warren a "very engaging speaker" who has a "real ability to speak to the lay person about what the underlining dynamics are in the economy."

That's precisely what Democrats are hoping to project with Warren's speech. From a working class background in Oklahoma, Warren speaks often about themes of opportunity and strengthening the middle class. To that end, Connolly said he thought Warren would “highlight advocacy for the middle class.”

Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan (D) saw particular opportunity for Warren to appeal to women: "She will definitely speak to working class women, and I don’t think she’s going to turn anybody off. She comes across as pretty tough; I don’t see her coming off as a heady intellectual, it’s inner toughness about taking on the banks.”

Prime time speakers at party conventions are usually selected to help broaden the party's appeal to voters who don't adhere to strict political orthodoxies. The choice of San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro to keynote the Democratic convention is a good example of that.

One Democratic operative NBC News that Warren could do that, too, but, “she carries a risk."

"I’d say she’s high risk, high reward," said the operative. "People could relate to her down with the 'greedy guys' talk, or see her as polarizing and part of the problem.”

But another retiring Blue Dog, North Carolina Rep. Health Shuler, expressed concern that Democrats could risk seeming as though they're uninterested in moderates by putting Warren front-and-center.

“I hope in time, Democrats realize in order for us to appeal to more voters, we need to highlight more moderates, not show just the far left of the party but in fact give people an opportunity to see we are a big tent," he said, pointing to the GOP's struggles with the Tea Party as a cautionary tale. "That helps us with independents; we don’t want to be pushing out moderates just like the Republicans are doing.”