DETROIT — At a summertime getaway for liberals, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has captured the hearts of Democratic activists beginning to think about an heir to President Barack Obama. But their minds tell them that Hillary Rodham Clinton could help them hang onto the White House.
Warren, whose tough-on-Wall-Street message makes progressives swoon, received a rousing reception at the annual Netroots Nation summit on Friday, where people interrupted her fiery speech with chants of "Run, Liz, Run," even though she has repeatedly denied interest in running for the president. In the hallways, Democratic fans of Warren said Clinton isn't necessarily their preferred option — but probably their best shot.
"We've known Hillary since, really, 1991. There's a sameness that works against her a little bit with the activist base," said Kyle Tanner, 39, of Chicago. "But she's mounted amazing electoral operations. There's a huge advantage to that."
Clinton remains a dominant figure as Democrats begin to consider the 2016 presidential campaign, which will begin in earnest after the fall midterm elections. Many liberals question Clinton's ties to Wall Street and are seeking a fresh face, even though polls suggest the former secretary of state gives them their best chance of electing the nation's first female president.
If Clinton runs, a major question will be whether she can energize what some call the "Elizabeth Warren wing" of the party, who volunteer for campaigns, donate money and helped power Obama to two victories. A populist mood pervaded the meeting Friday, with many activists urging punishment for Wall Street banks and steps to address income inequality. Others raised concerns that many of Obama's promises — to reform immigration, address climate change and rebuild the economy — remain unfulfilled.
"If I had my choice, it'd be Elizabeth Warren," said James Conlon, 40, a Seattle-area field organizer for the National Education Association. "So many of the other folks like Hillary Clinton are a little bit too entrenched and they have too many big-money interests that have been supporting them."
Warren sought to tamp down the presidential chatter, but her 17-minute speech sounded like a campaign call-to-arms, with vows to fight for tougher rules against Wall Street, for environmental protections and equal rights. To Warren, Wall Street and lobbyists represent the opposition.
"We can whine about it. We can whimper about it. Or we can fight back," Warren said. "I'm fighting back." A grassroots group called "Ready for Warren" passed out blue "Run Liz Run" signs and plastic hats throughout the Cobo convention center.
Gaye Tannenbaum, 61, talked up Warren as an ideal presidential candidate. Tannenbaum, who votes in Kansas but lives in Uruguay, said Clinton has been "beaten up" in political fights and the party was seeking a relative newcomer.
But Michelle Coyle Edwards, a 33-year-old from Alexandria, Virginia, said she was excited about a Clinton candidacy.
"I feel like the momentum's really behind Hillary right now, and I want to focus where something can actually happen," she said.
Another potential candidate, Vice President Joe Biden, wasn't the subject of much buzz along the sidelines but his speech was well-received.
Biden portrayed himself as a champion of liberal causes, recalling his unplanned public support for gay marriage during the 2012 campaign, a move that nudged Obama to announce his backing for same-sex marriage.
"I come out of the civil rights movement and there's not a way in God's green earth that I could sit there and be asked a question about the civil rights issue of our day and remain silent," Biden said Thursday.
Clinton was invited to speak at Netroots Nation but declined amid an extensive tour to promote her book, "Hard Choices." Ready for Hillary, a group that is laying the groundwork for a Clinton campaign, maintained a presence at the conference.
The former New York senator faced skepticism during her only appearance at the event in August 2007. In a Democratic presidential debate, Clinton declined to give up taking campaign donations from lobbyists, drawing boos and hisses from liberal bloggers. She said many lobbyists "represent corporations that employ a lot of people."
More recently, Clinton has echoed the nation's economic frustrations, pointing to the need to address the gap between the wealthy and poor. In an interview with PBS's Charlie Rose, Clinton said if she runs for president she would have a "very specific agenda."
"You have to run a very specific campaign that talks about the changes you want to make in order to tackle growth," Clinton said, pointing to widespread economic progress made when her husband was president.