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By Lesley Clark, McClatchy Washington Bureau

DETROIT — “Is this the line for the groupies?”

Amanda Knief asked the question with a laugh, but liberal fervor for Sen. Elizabeth Warren runs deep, as evidenced by the fans who’d gathered some 90 minutes before the Massachusetts Democrat took the stage in Detroit recently at the nation’s largest gathering of liberal activists.

Volunteers with a group that’s hoping to convince Warren to launch a bid for the White House handed out “Warren for President” stickers and hats. As the senator signed copies of her latest book, “A Fighting Chance,” supporters pressed her to consider a run in 2016.

Warren’s pugnacious battle against Wall Street titans and her impassioned defense of liberal touchstones have fans swooning.

“She represents the conscience of America,” said Monica Lewis Patrick, 48, a public policy analyst in Detroit.

She cited Warren’s unabashed criticism of the banking industry, which the senator charges duped homeowners and helped spark the financial crisis.

“She speaks truth to power unapologetically,” Patrick said.

Knief, 37, a public policy activist, said Warren was inspiring a new round of activism.

“She makes us think, ‘We can do this,’ ” said Knief. “She’s out there making things happen.”

A former Sunday school teacher, Warren delivers populist stemwinders with confrontational rhetoric. She speaks more like an activist than a politician, decrying “sleazy lobbyists” and their “Republican friends in Congress,” along with rapacious corporations and big banks that she says “swagger through Washington” focused on squashing any effort to regulate them.

For liberals and many who feel left behind by an economy that’s supercharged Wall Street but done little to lift salaries, the subjects of Warren’s ire are fitting targets.

“Most of our politicians are preoccupied with raising money, much of it from Wall Street,” said Egberto Willies, 52, a Houston blogger and software developer. “We finally have a politician who truly believes and advocates for the middle class.”

Warren comes by her populism honestly. She taught for two decades at Harvard Law School, but the Oklahoma native underscores her modest roots: Her father was a janitor and her mother worked at Sears, earning minimum wage, Warren tells audiences.

Her parents didn’t have enough money to send young Elizabeth to college, so she enrolled at a commuter school, paying $50 a semester.

Warren first drew widespread liberal ardor when she issued pointed critiques as the chair of a congressional oversight panel that monitored the $700 billion federal taxpayer bailout of the banking industry in 2008. At one hearing, she allowed protesters toting signs that read “Give us our $$$$$ back” and “Where’s our money?” to stay during a nearly two-hour congressional hearing.

She left the panel in 2010 to help launch the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, aimed at cracking down on deceptive and abusive loan products. Calling for a strong consumer watchdog, she memorably said her second choice would be “no agency at all and plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor.”

Many had hoped she’d become the bureau’s first director, and she was a natural choice. But President Barack Obama passed her over amid staunch opposition from congressional Republicans and financial service industry lobbyists who thought Warren was hostile to their interests.

She ran for the Senate instead, defeating Republican former Sen. Scott Brown, despite what she says were pledges by Wall Street to “send money by the double bucketful” to defeat her.

Warren boasts that the financial protection agency has returned $4 billion to consumers, and as much as some backers would like her to run for president, many want her to remain in the Senate. She’s repeatedly told reporters pressing her about presidential aspirations that she’s serving out her Senate term, which runs to 2019.

Republicans have taken note of Warren’s popularity. America Rising, a conservative group that does opposition research on Democrats, says it’s tracking Warren now, along with Clinton.

“Democrats are launching a campaign to draft liberal Democrat Elizabeth Warren for president,” America Rising said in a fundraising appeal. “America can’t afford to let that happen.”

Photo: Senate Democrats via Flickr

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