Before a cheering crowd of several hundred, Elizabeth Warren summoned the familiar and fiery spirits of Democratic populism. “Our job is to fight for the families of America,” the Massachusetts Senator yelled over applause in a hotel ballroom July 14. “Stitch up the tax loopholes so that millionaires and billionaires pay at the same tax rate as the people in this room.”
What was striking was less her theme–the former Harvard Law professor has had the same mantra since she burst onto the national scene as an overseer of the bank bailout–than the venue: Shepherdstown, W.Va. In 2012, President Obama narrowly lost the town, and he got creamed in the state, garnering just 35.5% of the vote.
Warren’s reach these days certainly feels broader, making her the most influential Democratic surrogate of the 2014 cycle and an interesting descant in a party where Hillary Clinton is the favorite soloist. “She has the ability to channel people’s rage against Wall Street and a financial system that is stacked against them that resonates with those on the left and right,” says Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate majority leader Harry Reid. “If you listen real hard, sometimes her rhetoric is not that much different from conservative Senators like Rand Paul.”
This has lent Warren something like rock-star status not only in New York and Los Angeles but also in parts of West Virginia and Kentucky, where she campaigned last month. And it has helped her raise $3.3 million that could aid Democratic candidates and increased speculation that she might challenge Clinton in 2016. That’s unlikely–and Warren is quick to say so. Instead, she says, her focus has remained on such economic issues as student loans, bankruptcy reform and–if Democrats keep the Senate–a renewed push for another round of Wall Street reforms.
In any case, a rising awareness of income inequality has made Warren a more important voice in a party that is heavily reliant on the superwealthy in election years. But at 65, she is only 18 months younger than Clinton, and some supporters worry that her window for the highest office might close if she doesn’t run soon. “Lizzie in 2020!” a man in the Shepherdstown audience bellowed. Warren smiled serenely. “Let’s focus on 2014 for now,” she said.
This appears in the July 28, 2014 issue of TIME.