MANCHESTER, N.H. -- As she sets out on an almost-certain White House bid, Sen. Elizabeth Warren so far has curiously avoided uttering the name of one prominent politician: President Trump.
At a town hall-style session at Manchester Community College on Saturday, the Massachusetts Democrat referenced him only indirectly. Touting “the biggest anti-corruption proposal since Watergate,” Warren implored that “everyone who runs for public federal office put their tax returns online, everyone.”
It was a clear jab at Trump, who as both a candidate and as president has repeatedly refused to release federal income tax returns. But she made an effort not to speak his name -- a tactic that's apparently part of a broader party strategy, albeit one that could leave candidates like Warren limited in their ability to strike back at an incumbent who shows no qualms about personally attacking every political foe.
Trump, true to form, unloaded on Warren over the weekend, mocking her Instagram video timed with her exploratory committee announcement -- while also making an off-color reference to the Wounded Knee massacre that earned him more political scorn.
"If Elizabeth Warren, often referred to by me as Pocahontas, did this commercial from Bighorn or Wounded Knee instead of her kitchen, with her husband dressed in full Indian garb, it would have been a smash!" he wrote.
But the tweets showed Trump eager to engage the ever-expanding field of 2020 candidates, and to specifically hammer Warren over her past claims of Native-American heritage which she has tried to explain.
One reason Warren isn’t firing back may be that “she doesn’t have a good answer,” a veteran GOP strategist told Fox News.
“She must have reached a calculation that engaging him on this is just not going to be beneficial to her,” said Colin Reed, a former campaign manager for ex-Sen. Scott Brown who later served as executive director at the conservative opposition research shop America Rising. “If she engages with him on this issue, I think it’s a battle that she doesn’t really win right now.”
As a top surrogate for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign, Warren often unloaded on then-candidate Trump, at one time calling him a "thin-skinned, racist bully.” In her Senate re-election campaign last year, Warren repeatedly tied her Republican challenger to the president. And she’s long been a very vocal Trump critic in the Senate.
But in an hour-long speech and question-and-answer session in New Hampshire – her first stop in the state that holds the first-in-the-nation primary since she launched a presidential exploratory committee two weeks ago – Warren didn’t say Trump’s name.
Instead, Warren repeatedly painted a picture of a political system beset by dysfunction and corruption as she called for the “need to make systemic change in this country, real change.”
Trump also went nameless in an interview Warren did with Fox News and a couple of Granite State news organizations, as well as during her brief question-and-answer session with reporters. It was a similar story the previous weekend, as Warren made multiple campaign stops in Iowa.
“I think we need to talk about our affirmative version,” Warren explained to reporters in Manchester. “I talked serious policy here in New Hampshire and that’s what I’m going to continue doing.”
But she also added that “I’m willing to fight. Everybody knows that.”
Her approach speaks to the dilemma facing each Democrat entering the 2020 fray: each needs to decide how to deal with a president known to quickly fire off insults on Twitter. While high-profile attorney Michael Avenatti – who flirted with a Democratic nomination run last year before deciding against a White House bid – called for fighting fire with fire, most of the potential Democratic contenders are avoiding a slugfest with Trump.
Strategists suggest it's part of an effort to demonstrate what they're for, and not just what they're against.
Mo Elleithee, the founding executive director of Georgetown University's Institute of Politics and Public Service and a Fox News contributor, said “it’s early and I think each Democratic candidate is going to have to find the right balance between proving that they can take on the president, but also that they have something unique to offer themselves.”
And attacking the president doesn’t, for now, appear to further candidates' goal of introducing themselves to a primary audience – an audience that already assumes those running for the Democratic nomination vehemently oppose Trump.
“Folks already know that any Democratic candidate is going to need to take on the president and that they are anti-Trump. So spending some time at the beginning explaining who they are, what they have to offer, why they are running, is an important part of the calculus,” added Elleithee, a senior spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign who later served as communications director for the Democratic National Committee.
Emphasizing issues like health care helped Democrats win back the House of Representatives in November’s midterm elections. So far the 2020 contenders seem to be following the 2018 playbook, rather than Clinton’s 2016 strategy, when she spotlighted Trump as unfit to serve in the White House.
“In this early stage, voters want to kick the tires and test-drive these candidates to see who is authentically the antidote to Trump but they can't do that if you spend all day playing bumper cars with his latest Twitter tantrum,” Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson said.
“In the long run, when you focus on policies that help people, you implicitly expose that Trump has never done anything that doesn't help himself,” added Ferguson, who served as a senior spokesman on the 2016 Clinton campaign.
If any 2020 contender had a reason to trade punches with the president, it would be Warren, whom Trump routinely derides as “Pocahontas.”
While Warren’s avoided uttering Trump’s name at campaign events, it was a different story when she sat down for an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow two days after launching her presidential exploratory committee.
"Donald Trump is an accelerant," Warren told the progressive host. "He takes a problem that has just been growing and growing and growing and he just sets it off. And makes it worse than it ever was."
Some of that kind of language will sooner or later make its way onto the campaign trail.
“I have no doubt that as the campaign progresses, [Warren] and others are going to try to prove their willingness to take him on,” Elleithee predicted.
Ask Democratic activists, and they’ll tell you electability matters. And as next year’s primaries and caucuses come closer into view, Democratic voters will increasingly seek the candidate they think is best-positioned to defeat Trump in the general election.
“It will be incredibly important. One of the unifying factors within the Democratic Party is the desire to beat the president,” Elleithee added. “But it’s not the only one. Before they can take on the president, these candidates have to set themselves apart from one another and have to show who they are.”