- Hillary Clinton's flagging poll numbers raise the specter of whether Elizabeth Warren might still enter the 2016 contest.
- All the energy in the Democratic Party is on the left, and Warren has exerted an ideological pull that is helping to shape the race
Washington (CNN)So much for Elizabeth Warren taking a pass on 2016.
The scourge of Wall Street might have disappointed her legions of "Run Warren Run" supporters by ruling out her own bid for the White House earlier this year.
But the Massachusetts senator is in the thick of the Democratic race anyway. Warren offered a fresh glimpse of her political star power and talismanic value for Democrats when she held a furtive meeting with Vice President Joe Biden on Saturday -- which briefly knocked even Donald Trump out of the headlines.
The encounter, first reported by CNN, intensified speculation that Biden, perhaps encouraged by front-runner Hillary Clinton's ebbing poll numbers, is moving closer to a White House run and is keen to connect with Warren's fervent supporters.
It also returned her name to the political mix, as Biden's interest in powwowing with her as he mulls a presidential run demonstrates her clout, and those same flagging poll numbers raise the specter of whether Warren missed her moment -- or might still plan to seize it and enter the 2016 race herself.
"Elizabeth Warren does have a thumb on the pulse of the progressive movement, the space that Bernie Sanders is occupying," said former South Carolina state lawmaker and CNN contributor Bakari Sellers on Sunday, referring to the Vermont senator challenging Clinton from the left.
New openings for Warren
The shifting dynamics of the Democratic race, reshaped by Clinton's rough start to an expected coronation now haunted by a controversy over her private email server, could yet offer new opportunities and leverage for Warren.
She insists, however, that she's not having second thoughts about her own decision to forgo a presidential run.
"No," "no" and "nope," Warren said unequivocally in a string of recent interviews with media organizations in her home state when asked whether she now feels she should have thrown her hat in the ring for president.
In many ways, the Democratic race for president is unfolding in Warren's ideological image anyway.
"People want to hear about the issues, they want to hear about change, they want to hear about how we take a system that is rigged and unrig it," Warren said in a weekend interview on WBZ-TV in Boston.
After Biden's meeting with Warren, his aides said the topic was mostly "economic issues" and not the election. But since Warren's push for raising taxes to create jobs, for clean energy, for affordable education, for infrastructure spending and against free trade deals undergirds the Democratic race, the conversation could hardly have been more political.
And the meeting was testimony to the power of Warren herself.
The fact that the sitting vice president would travel to Washington from Delaware just to meet her on a Saturday was a sign that Warren's weight in the Democratic Party outstrips her status as a first-term senator -- a lowly spot in a chamber where seniority rules.
Warren had already held a private meeting with Clinton late last year, which taken with the Biden talks offer proof that her standing has not eroded despite snubbing entreaties by her left-wing base to mount a presidential run herself.
Indeed, all the energy in the Democratic Party now is on the left, and she has exerted an ideological pull that is helping to shape the nominating showdown along the lines of a script she wrote herself on issues like banking regulation and student debt. Warren's eventual endorsement could prove an important moment in motivating base voters to support the eventual nominee.
Warren emerged from the Great Recession as a major political player, and conceived of and ran President Barack Obama's Consumer Protection Agency before running for the Senate. She is such a heroine to those on the progressive left of the Democratic Party that it's known among many activists as the "Warren Wing."
"We have seen a race to the top on Elizabeth Warren's ideas, including debt-free college, expanding Social Security, and holding Wall Street banks accountable," said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "That dynamic would continue if Vice President Biden chooses to enter the race."
But Clinton and Biden, if he runs, would be seen as centrist Democrats associated with an administration with which Warren has sometimes clashed, and would need to make peace with the progressive left.
Sanders takes Warren's place
Many of the grass-roots Democratic activists who once hoped to fight for Warren have now gravitated to Sanders, a Vermont senator who has described himself as a socialist, injecting momentum into a populist, progressive campaign that has shown a surprising capacity to attract massive crowds and come within spitting distance of Clinton in some polls, given that he started the race in the single digits.
Sanders on Monday responded to Warren's meeting with Biden by calling her a "very good friend" whom he'd met many times. He then fired off the kind of acidic critique of the U.S. economic system for which she has become known.
"I think people understand there is something profoundly wrong today with establishment politics, that we need some bold ideas to resurrect the middle class in this country, to address poverty, to address income and wealth inequality," Sanders told reporters in New Hampshire.
Such is Warren's importance in the party that her every utterance is pored over by political strategists for evidence of veiled criticism of Clinton -- who faces a tough job in winning over progressives wary of the former secretary of state's ties to Wall Street donors who have helped underwrite her family's many campaigns and philanthropic foundation. Disappointment in Clinton still lingers over her Senate vote in 2002 to authorize war in Iraq and what some see as hawkish national security instincts.
In her campaign so far, Clinton has tacked to her left -- and toward Warren's positions on financial regulation and government programs aimed at making college debt-free. She has also criticized the Obama administration's plan to open certain areas of the Arctic to exploratory oil and gas drilling.
As part of an apparent bid to court Warren supporters, Clinton wrote a glowing tribute to the Massachusetts senator in Time magazine earlier this year.
"Elizabeth Warren never lets us forget that the work of taming Wall Street's irresponsible risk-taking and reforming our financial system is far from finished," Clinton wrote.
"And she never hesitates to hold powerful people's feet to the fire: bankers, lobbyists, senior government officials and, yes, even presidential aspirants."
But Warren is indicating that for now, no one has sewn up her support.
"I don't think anybody's anointed," Warren said, when asked on WBZ-TV if Clinton was already the de-facto nominee in an interview that aired on Sunday and caused stirs across the political world.
Still a party power broker
But while she looks set to wield great influence in the Democratic race, and could eventually help whoever becomes the nominee, disappointment still lingers for many Warren supporters who had hoped she would run for president in her own right.
While Warren has never explained exactly why she decided against a run, there are many possible reasons. Her lack of national security experience may have been a factor; she may have been wary of provoking the Clinton machine; she may have accepted a feeling among Democrats that it was Clinton's turn to finally make history as the Democratic Party's first female nominee.
Most polls earlier this year also suggested she would struggle to beat Clinton in a head-to-head race, given the former first lady's likely strength among Hispanic voters and minorities and the size of her political infrastructure.
Warren may have looked at the prospects and calculated that a failed presidential run could have undercut her influence.
Her political behavior since then and her decision so far not to play her top political card -- her endorsement -- may prove to be a shrewd move.
Not only is she preserving her capacity to influence candidates in the current campaign, she also appears to be seeking to cement an influence in the party that endures long past the 2016 election.
"She's a very important figure," said Jim Manley, a former senior aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
"Her modus operandi has been to hang back and let the process play out. She is playing the long game," he said. "I am not sure what the future holds for her, but I think she is determined to carve out a role within the party for many years to come."