By Jon Keller

BOSTON (CBS) – To the surprise of no one, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has taken the next step toward a presidential run by forming an exploratory committee.

But what exactly is Warren going to be exploring?

Exploratory committees are legal vehicles for raising and spending money, which can go toward a variety of water-testing functions like travel and polling. These committees have to abide by the usual campaign-finance rules – caps on individual donations, for instance.

But you don’t have to publicly report the dough you raise or where it comes from, allowing you to essentially conduct the most important early poll – surveying your potential campaign donor base – in private.

Warren has millions in the bank already, but nowhere near the boatload she’ll need to run a serious presidential campaign. (No one else does either, except self-funding billionaires like Michael Bloomberg or Tom Steyer.)

So this clandestine money poll will help Warren answer some key questions about her chances:

  • Is the network of admirers she’s developed over a decade of high-profile advocacy ready to back her, or do they prefer to ride the fence to see if another progressive (Beto O’Rourke? Kamala Harris?) gains steam?
  • Has the backlash against her DNA test and a period of underwhelming poll numbers damaged her political standing?
  • Will the Bernie Sanders crowd – and others on the left who were miffed that she didn’t run in 2016 and sat out the Democratic primaries without endorsing – warm up to her?
  • Does it matter to the insiders that she has, in recent months, released years of tax returns and offered detailed plans for economic reform and fighting DC corruption, steps other top candidates have yet to take?

If competently run, the Warren exploratory committee can fairly quickly answer some of those questions. Then comes a raft of much harder ones:

  • Is the broader Democratic universe really looking for yet another Massachusetts politician to top the 2020 ticket? That election will mark 60 years since the last local pol won the White House.
  • Is Warren too old? Too white? Too academic? Too damaged by the mere association with the “People’s Republic” of Massachusetts?
  • Is Warren’s scorched-earth rhetorical style the right way to run against Trump-Pence, or does it play into their hands?

Warren has arguably been approaching this campaign more aggressively than any major figure. That could be an advantage if she can lock up key donors and activists; it also exposes her to scrutiny and criticism from both right and left.

With former Gov. Deval Patrick’s withdrawal from consideration, Warren is the only potential candidate from Massachusetts. You can’t have an election without at least one.

With her exploratory committee formation likely to be the first of many in the next few weeks, we may find out sooner, rather than later, if her timing is right.

Jon Keller


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