NEW YORK — On Monday night, Sen. Elizabeth Warren stood in Washington Square Park and told a huge crowd why they were there: not for the arch behind her or the president the square was named for, she said, but because of its location.
Invoking the deadly 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that occurred just blocks from the park, Warren hailed the political power of female-led organizing. She argued that outrage can spark positive change — and made the case for her own presidential ambitions.
Warren has long faced doubts from some Democratic leaders and voters who wonder if she would be able to defeat President Trump, because of her outspoken liberal message and voters’ possible reluctance to embrace a woman as president. Monday’s speech, and the big crowd it attracted, was in part an attempt to rebut such doubts by arguing that liberal women have won big change before.
Warren read from a teleprompter in Washington Square Park, blocks from where the Triangle fire killed more than 140 workers, including many young immigrant women.
“We’re not here today because of famous arches or famous men,” she said.
The comments were a more direct nod to gender than most of her public remarks to date, which typically focus on the ways in which powerful interests have tilted the country’s government toward elites.
The event, which the campaign said attracted more than 20,000 and was easily among her largest crowds so far, had been heavily promoted by the Warren campaign in the preceding days. It came as the campaign enters a new phase in which voters will be paying closer attention and the field is narrowing, and as Warren is looking for new ways to show off her momentum.
She has started holding large rally-style events in an effort to demonstrate that she enjoys enthusiastic grass-roots support from the party’s base. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the other liberal stalwart in the race, made massive rallies a feature of his 2016 campaign and has also started hosting bigger events in recent weeks. Former vice president Joe Biden, who leads in the polls, has so far hewed to smaller-scale appearances.
At one point in her speech Monday, when Warren said the rich and powerful have “gobbled up opportunity itself” but that “we have the power to fix that,” the crowd interrupted with chants of “Warren! Warren!”
Still, as she has steadily risen in the polls, questions have persisted among centrists about whether she is offering an agenda that’s too liberal for the country or too polarizing to win a general election. She has spent much of the past few months trying to combat that view and emphasize her ostensible electability and her potentially broad appeal.
About an hour before Warren took the stage, a light rain began falling. Still, people continued streaming into Washingon Square Park, tucking “I’m a WARREN Democrat” signs underneath their umbrellas. After a short time the rain subsided, and speakers pumped up the crowd with chants of “Dream big! Fight hard!”
In her speech, Warren likened herself to Frances Perkins, who as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s labor secretary was the first female member of the U.S. Cabinet. Perkins was not an elected official but is seen as a highly influential and effective public figure.
“What did one woman — one very persistent woman — backed up by millions of people across this country get done? Big structural change,” Warren said, invoking one of her own campaign slogans.
She credited Perkins, a longtime labor activist, with pushing for major worker protections in New York in the wake of the Triangle fire and with helping launch Social Security, unemployment insurance, the minimum wage and child labor laws. Warren even spoke from a podium built from barn boards from Perkins’s homestead.
In focusing on Perkins, Warren sought to tie her campaign to the New Deal and an era of powerful liberal accomplishment, and she cited Perkins’s methods to bolster her view of the best way to bring about change. “She worked the political system relentlessly from the inside, while a sustained movement applied pressure from the outside,” Warren said.
The senator from Massachusetts criticized Trump as “corruption in the flesh” but did not dwell heavily on the president. She focused on positioning herself as different from political leaders who have pitched voters on change in the past only to fail to deliver, saying she is not soliciting money from powerful individuals or big corporations.
“Americans disagree on many things, but we don’t want each other’s homes burned down by wildfires,” Warren said. “We don’t want each other’s children murdered at school. We don’t want each other’s families bankrupted by medical bills. What we want is for our government to do something.”
While Warren spoke in New York, several other Democratic candidates appeared Monday at an event in Galivants Ferry, S.C. Some of the hopefuls talked up their strengths, but Biden played up his long-standing ties with South Carolina, showing why 43 percent of Palmetto State respondents supported him in a recent CBS poll.
The late senator Fritz Hollings, a popular South Carolina Democrat, “brung me to the dance,” Biden recounted. When Biden’s first wife and daughter were killed in a 1972 car crash shortly after his election to the Senate, he told the crowd, he considered resigning before he was even sworn in. It was Hollings who persuaded Biden to come to Washington, saying his wife had “worked like the devil to get you here.”
The crowd gave Biden a standing ovation. Nearly two-thirds of South Carolina Democrats are African American, and Biden touted himself as the best person to counter Trump’s race-oriented rhetoric, which he described as “trafficking in some of the ugliest forces.”
On Sunday, Biden spoke at the 56th anniversary of the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., which killed four black girls and galvanized the civil rights movement. On Monday, he portrayed his campaign as a continuation of that fight.
“There can be no realization of the American Dream without continuing to grapple with the original sin of slavery,” he said. “We all now realize that violence does not live in the past. If you give it oxygen, it comes back.”
Warren’s speech in New York also focused on great progressive causes, in her case the battle for the rights of women and workers. Her speech came hours after she released a wide-ranging anticorruption plan that seeks to dramatically limit the influence of former federal lawmakers and lobbyists while expanding protections for workers.
Among the nearly 100 suggested changes in the proposal, lobbyists would be banned from all campaign fundraising activities — including “bundling” the contributions of other donors — and campaigns would not be able to receive “intangible benefits,” such as opposition research, from foreign governments.
Warren’s campaign also received a boost Monday with an endorsement from the Working Families Party, a liberal group that endorsed Sanders’s effort in 2016. On Monday night, Maurice Mitchell, the national director of the Working Families Party, introduced Warren before she spoke at Washington Square Park.
“Repeat after me: people power! People power!” Mitchell said. “Now louder, so they can hear you in Mar-a-Lago!”