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Elizabeth Warren’s Risky Dodge on Health Care and Taxes

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The hubbub around her dodging—one of the defining features of last night’s debate—makes staffers on the Warren campaign roll their eyes. They think reporters and Republicans and her rivals onstage are just looking for a soundbite about raising taxes, an “Aha!” to stick her with all the way through the primaries, and perhaps through Election Day. They clearly take pride in not playing the game the way political insiders and Twitter critics want them to. They can also take solace in the fact that, in the month since the last debate, when ABC News moderator George Stephanopoulos pressed her on the tax question, her poll numbers have continued to go up.

But life’s different now as the frontrunner. Last night’s debate made clear that Warren’s Democratic opponents feel like the primary revolves around her now, with most of the 11 other candidates onstage taking swings at her and seeming to forget that Vice President Joe Biden, until now the focus of the race, was even there. In a statement following the debate, Warren’s communications director, Kristen Orthman, brushed off the attacks from other candidates: Warren’s momentum comes from “running a campaign of substance,” and “she took heat tonight as a result of that momentum.”

In the spin room afterward, the other candidates and their surrogates kept up the Warren criticism, in a sign that the next phase of the race could be even more Warren-centric. Her avoidance on the taxes question “hurts her brand,” Dayton, Ohio, Mayor Nan Whaley told me , after she popped into the spin room on behalf of South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, one of the candidates who went after Warren hardest.

Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s chief strategist, resisted a question from another reporter asking if Warren was dishonest, but he argued that his own boss was being “straightforward” in saying that raising taxes would help pay for Medicare for all. “That’s the honest answer, that’s the only answer,” he told me when I followed up.

When I asked whether Warren was living up to her reputation as a truth-teller, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey said he wasn’t going to attack anyone, but he made sure to point out that he wants to be defined by his own “utter candor.”

Former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke wasn’t so delicate. Was she telling the truth? I asked. “She failed to do that tonight, and she’s failed to do that in previous debates,” O’Rourke replied. “And I think on an issue as important as health care, and an issue as important as taxes on the middle class, this country deserves to hear the truth.”

Obviously, these are all people who don’t want to see Warren become the Democratic nominee. So I walked over to two women who do: Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico and California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher. Both have endorsed Warren, and they were among the official representatives of the campaign in the spin room.

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