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Elizabeth Warren breaks through crowded 2020 field -- with a plan

(CNN) For five months now, Elizabeth Warren has bounced around the country pitching ambitious ideas -- typically anchored by well-timed policy rollouts -- to achieve the "big, structural change" at the core of her pitch to Democratic primary voters.

Now, with the first round of debates in sight, the energetic campaigner is beginning to see a different kind of movement -- in the polls. The latest round of surveys have shown Warren creeping up behind her ideological ally and friend Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator whose campaign is increasingly adapting similar smallball tactics as a way of more directly addressing voters' questions and concerns. Former Vice President Joe Biden remains the frontrunner by a comfortable margin, but in the race to represent the party's more liberal wing, Warren is quietly on the rise.

Her slow-burn campaign began on the last day of last year with modest fanfare, at least by comparison to the kind of attention initially dedicated to rivals like Beto O'Rourke, who dominated the will-he-won't-he headlines with a stream of journal entries and, eventually, a glossy magazine debut in March. But the opening slog of the primary, which still has about 8 months to run before the Iowa caucuses, gave Warren a chance to sharpen her trade -- and help her emerge in a way few predicted: as a cultural figure bolstered by a kind of meme-friendly fandom all candidates long for, but only a handful achieve.

The Massachusetts senator's schedule is meticulously drawn, but her interactions with those who come to see her is, apart from a quick pitch that shows up in almost every appearance, mostly unscripted. At town halls from Iowa and New Hampshire to less traveled campaign trails in Tennessee and Alabama, Warren has been grinding away, taking questions and, famously, selfies -- literally tens of thousands of them.

That appeal, typically confined to modest-sized "organizing events," has begun to spill over into social media, pop culture and the national press. During her Thursday morning appearance on "The View," an audience member held up a small flag reading, "Warren has a plan for that." She appeared on Time magazine's cover with those words -- "I have a plan for that" -- in headline print alongside her face, which looked on heroically to some distant horizon. For those paying attention -- and especially the voters, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll question, paying "a lot" of it -- the message seems to be landing. She was the only candidate other than Biden (42%) who registered double-digit support, at 15%.

Warren has embraced the broader, and perhaps unexpected, new interest.

"I have a plan" has become a reliable applause line at rallies, and she delivers it reliably, along with snippets of an autobiography that the former Harvard professor, as well as anyone else in the contest, naturally connects to explanations of her policy proposals. The selfie lines, and her dog, Bailey, have drawn untold likes on social media, and yes, that was a Warren 2020 bumper sticker on a car driven by the young female protagonists in the new movie, "Booksmart."

In front of a national audience on "The View," Warren showed off her knack for serving up a complicated policy in a digestible bite. Speaking about her childcare plan, Warren said "this one is really personal for me" before recalling her time as a young mom who was bailed out by her "Aunt Bee," who rushed to her rescue so many years ago after a tearful phone call and then, after arriving a couple days later, "stayed for 16 years."

"And that's how I made it through," Warren said. "If all of America had an Aunt Bee, we'd be in a different place, but childcare has gotten even harder, and holds women (and) some men back from getting an education, and getting into the workforce and taking a more demanding job."

At that, Warren pivoted back to her proposal, and directed viewers to her website, which now has a feature that allows people to calculate -- based on where they live, their income and how many kids they have, or plan on having -- just how much they stand to save if her plan became law. A lot more would change if even a handful of her big ticket proposals -- some original, some of them revamped or repackaged past legislation -- came to life. Warren wants to enshrine broad new anti-corruption laws; break up big tech; cancel nearly all student debt; make higher education, like childcare, almost entirely free; make housing more affordable by changing zoning laws; place a moratorium on fossil fuel drilling by executive order; and create an incentive-laden system to encourage medical providers to drive down maternal mortality rates. To start. She would pay for the more expensive stuff, she says, with her wealth tax.

But if Warren can, at times, seem to have answers to all the worries a voter can name, there are other, less high-minded questions she must still address.

Her organization is large and, so far, functions with an apparent ease that matches the candidate's bearing. But it is also expensive and Warren, through the first quarter of 2019, struggled to raise the kind of money candidates like Sanders, O'Rourke and California Sen. Kamala Harris have attracted. She has a hefty Senate campaign bankroll to fall back on, but her decision to refuse money from all political action committees and other big donors -- the kind embraced by Biden, most notably -- could circumscribe how and where she campaigns later on.

Warren's advisers have been tight-lipped about the questions centering on whether she can raise enough money to sustain the expansive organizing operation in Iowa and other early-voting states. After swearing off attending those high-dollar fundraising events this spring, she is relying solely on online donations.

A longtime supporter and donor close to the campaign said fundraising has picked up during the last two months as Warren has drawn more attention through the flurry of policy proposals, television appearances and aggressive campaign schedule. She raised $6 million in the first quarter of the year, but the campaign has set a goal of at least $8 million for the second quarter, which she is on track to meet or exceed, a Democrat close to Warren said.

"Things have looked up in the second quarter," the Democrat said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss fundraising goals, who added that fundraising remains one of Warren's biggest hurdles.

She will not, however, be hampered by an unwillingness to spar with Biden, even as he does his best to remain above the primary fray by saving his shots for President Donald Trump, who has aided that strategy by insulting Biden when the opportunity presents itself.

Warren welcomed Biden to the primary back in April by highlighting their decades-old rivalry, which traces back to a feud over bankruptcy laws. Their fight -- well-documented then and now -- was rooted in issues of economic fairness that are likely to resonate with Democrats in 2020.

"I got in that fight because (families) just didn't have anyone," Warren said of their dispute over a major bankruptcy bill, "and Joe Biden was on the side of the credit card companies."

Only Sanders, who is keen to position himself as the progressive alternative to Biden, has drawn more stark contrasts with the former vice president. Whether the primary ends up pitting Sanders and Warren against one another for the support of the Democratic left -- and the risks that entails for a movement that has, at times, claimed both of them as its own -- is a question both campaigns have yet to face.

For now, though, the blinders are on and the march continues. Warren has already visited 18 states and Puerto Rico -- and will add two more next week, when she goes to Indiana and Michigan to talk about the economic future of the Upper Midwest and, presumably, her "plan for that."