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Elizabeth Warren steps into 2016 spotlight with Trump Twitter feud

In this photo taken Oct. 6, 2015, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. Warren has taken to Twitter again to bash Donald Trump, the latest in a series of Internet "tweetstorms" calling Trump on the carpet for his treatment of women and his insults toward her. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

As Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) emerges as one of Donald Trump's most vocal Democratic critics, speculation is growing about the role she will play in the 2016 presidential race.

Warren has not held back criticism of Republican candidates throughout the spring, but her attacks on Trump after he won the Indiana primary last week appears to have struck a nerve with the Manhattan billionaire.

Trump fired back, branding the senator "goofy Elizabeth Warren" and mocking her claims of having Native American heritage. He also accused her of "playing the woman's card like her friend crooked Hillary."

Warren, a hero among progressive Democrats, has not backed down, arguing that the only way to defeat a bully is to stand up to them.

"Your policies are dangerous. Your words are reckless. Your record is embarrassing. And your free ride is over," she said in a tweet Wednesday.

Hillary Clinton, who Trump claimed he would defeat easily if Warren was her running mate, retweeted one of Warren's comments.

Warren said in an interview with Mic that she wanted to finally hold Trump accountable for what he says, and she mocked him for immediately resorting to name-calling.

"A strong person will get back up with their own numbers and have a back and forth," she said. "You talk about your data, I'll talk about my data and we'll put it out there, we'll talk about the issues, we'll make coherent arguments--but not Donald Trump. "

Political scientists and Massachusetts-based Democratic strategists say Warren is just reacting to the fact that Trump has now clinched the Republican nomination.

"I think she hates Donald Trump," said Scott Ferson, president of Liberty Square Group. Since she has not endorsed either Democratic candidate, she has stepped up on her own to serve as a counterpoint to his economic policies.

Daniel Cence, senior vice president at Solomon McCown, noted that most of Warren's tweets have come in response to Trump's insults.

"I think it's her nature to hit back with equal and opposite force," he said.

The fact that she has not endorsed anyone gives her more freedom to express herself than campaign surrogates have, said Michael Pisapia, an assistant professor at Wake Forest University who studies the role of women in politics.

"She can attack Trump without worrying about how his counterattacks might hurt her own campaign, or the campaign of the person she supports," he said.

Warren's sharp criticisms of Trump could be a preview of how she would fare as a vice presidential nominee in the general election, a position the current vice president reportedly wanted her to take.

Politico reported Thursday that Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Warren about becoming his running mate when he was considering entering the race last fall. She was apparently non-committal at the time.

Sources close to Biden told the site he still believes she would make a strong candidate and would like to see front-runner Hillary Clinton choose her if she is the nominee.

Clinton's campaign and Sanders have both indicated Warren is someone they would consider for the vice presidential slot. Warren said in an interview published Thursday that she would not rule out joining Clinton's ticket.

"Right now, I just want to be clear: I love my job," Warren told Mic. "I'm here in the United States Senate doing exactly what the people of Massachusetts sent me here to do. I'm in the thick of the fights to try to level the playing field, to try to un-rig this system and that's what really matters to me. That's where I'm headed."

Experts see potential benefits for Clinton if she follows Biden's advice and aligns herself with Warren.

If Clinton defeats Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries, she faces an enormous challenge in winning over his supporters, many of whom do not trust her, according to polls.

"One of the factors she might think about would be does she need to reach out to the Sanders supporters?" said Joel Goldstein, author of "The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden." "Is there a message that she wants to send about herself that would be symbolized by a particular vice presidential pick?"

Warren is a good spokesperson and a strong fundraiser who would perform well in debates and on the campaign trail, and teaming up with another woman would be a "bold move" for Clinton, Goldstein, a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law, said.

"She needs someone who can mobilize the portion of the Democratic base that she has done poorly with--namely, white liberals under the age of 45--and who can appeal to independent voters," Pisapia said. "Warren could very well qualify in this way."

There would also be some disadvantages for Clinton and the Democratic Party in selecting Warren, Democratic strategists say.

Strategically, Cence said Warren may not help Clinton win any states that are not already deep blue. Clinton will win Massachusetts and perform well in New England either way.

Others agreed that Warren, while extremely qualified, would be a bad fit for Clinton's campaign.

"Hillary is a technocrat," Ferson said. "She's a mechanic."

Putting a "firebrand" like Warren on the ticket might temporarily excite the base, but he feels their agendas and styles are ultimately too different to work together effectively.

Tobe Berkovitz, a professor at Boston University and former political media consultant, warned that Trump's "Indian" insults could wound Warren with a national audience. Massachusetts voters have demonstrated that they do not care about the controversy over her claim that she is part-Native American, but voters elsewhere who do not know much about her might be more susceptible to Trump's message.

According to Pisapia, Clinton's campaign may also be weighing whether an all-female ticket will be a problem for some voters. He suggested voters who are okay with a woman at the top of the ballot should rationally be comfortable with a woman as her running mate.

"But unfortunately, not all voters are rational and reasonable," he added.

Also, in the fight for control of the Senate, plucking Warren from her seat would mean the Republican governor of Massachusetts will choose her temporary replacement and give the GOP one more vote.

If Clinton did ask Warren to serve as her running mate, it could create a difficult choice for the Massachusetts senator. In the Senate, she has the independence to pursue her own agenda, but as vice president, her power and voice would be more ambiguous.

"The ability to exert influence is entirely different in the two roles," Goldstein said.

The last six vice presidents have had more access to the president and a larger role in policy than their predecessors did. For an outspoken figure like Warren, though, committing to defend Clinton's views rather than her own could be a challenge.

Goldstein added that the power of the vice president also depends largely on their personal relationship with the president.

"It is, in a sense, a political marriage, but you're not the dominant partner," he said.

Ferson said Warren is currently a leading voice for economic justice in the Senate and is free to advocate for the issues she cares about.

"I think she loses that if she becomes vice president."

Looking ahead to 2017, when the next president will most likely be Clinton, a centrist Democrat who does not share Warren's priorities, or Trump, her wisest play in the long run may be to stay right where she is and shore up her influence in the Senate.

At some point, the 74-year-old Sanders will step out of the spotlight, and his supporters will then be looking for a new "champion," Ferson said.

"She's poised to just step in there and be that person."

With a secure Senate seat, Warren has an opportunity to become a new liberal lion in Washington in the mold of her predecessor, Sen. Ted Kennedy.

"As a senator, Warren of course enjoys independence from the executive branch, and in the Senate she can continue to try to lead the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction than the direction Clinton as president would be inclined or able to move, given the Republican House," Pisapia said.

As the 2016 campaign progresses, Warren could prove to be one of the Democrats' most effective attack dogs against Trump, and she has shown no inclination to shy away from confrontation with him.

"Elizabeth Warren picks her fights carefully, and the more that Donald Trump takes the bait and attacks Elizabeth Warren, the better it is for Democrats in November," said Marissa Barrow of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a grassroots organization that supports Warren and other progressive candidates.

Her organization has urged the Democratic presidential candidates to run on "an Elizabeth Warren-style agenda."

"The issues that Elizabeth Warren is fighting for like debt-free college, expanding Social Security, and holding Wall Street accountable are enormously popular with general election voters of all political stripes," Barrow said in a statement.

Pisapia listed several reasons why Warren may be a greater threat to Trump than most of his other antagonists during the campaign.

She speaks in populist language that appeals to voters who feel both parties are controlled by corporations and Wall Street. That message has potential to resonate with supporters of both Trump and Sanders. He also noted that Warren's Twitter attacks have a contagious and shareable quality.

"In a way, she has descending to Trump's level by calling him a 'bully,' 'lame' and 'weak,' but for many voters, this fighting fire with fire is effective," he said.

Others are skeptical that Warren's criticisms will change any minds about Trump.

"The audience to whom she is playing is never going to be with Trump anyway," Cence said.

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