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Bernie Sanders is hearing Elizabeth Warren's footsteps, and those footsteps are ahead of him, not behind him, in Iowa at least and perhaps soon in the rest of the country.

Both candidates lean to the left, to be sure, but the Massachusetts lawmaker is leaning forward and has passed Sanders in the Hawkeye State and has passed her fellow New Englander in the hearts of many liberals. Posing a direct threat to Sanders in New Hampshire, Warren may now be the contender former Vice President Joe Biden fears the most.

From the start, political professionals saw the 2020 Democratic campaign as a contest with various "lanes" — a minority/diversity lane comprised of Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, a moderate lane comprised of Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and an assortment of lesser-known figures, and a progressive lane consisting of Sanders and Warren.

Much of that theory has collapsed. Biden, who occupies a lane of his own, is by far the principal candidate among moderates, Harris has failed to catch fire (but hopes for a revival in South Carolina), and while Booker has shined in debates, his prospects have dimmed on the ground. (Booker has spoken openly of abandoning the race.)

Klobuchar at one time was the contender the Trump camp dreaded facing. The reasons: She is nice and introspective, and he is not. She has appeal in the vital voter group comprised of women in the suburbs, and he does not. But she, too, has failed to catch fire, even in Iowa, which shares a border with her home state.

That leaves the liberal lane, and thus far, Warren has outperformed her progressive rival in many regards.

Warren is fresh; she engages crowds. Sanders is stale; he lectures them. Warren’s story is one of prevailing against adversity; Sanders’ story is one of being an adversary of virtually everyone he has ever met.

And while Warren seems to be on a magical mystery tour, Sanders seems to be croaking the song "Yesterday."

Then there is the age factor. Warren is 70 years old, but Sanders is eight years older. His message is virtually identical to that of 2016. He did freshen it with last week’s proposal to eliminate medical debt, but even so, the Feel the Burn movement has a shopworn feel. He resists entreaties to modernize his approach.

For Sanders to prevail in 2020 some elements have to fall in his favor — an embarrassing misstep by Biden, for example, or an unseemly revelation involving Warren. The former is likely, the latter not so much. 

Sanders emergence in 2016 was special circumstance. That race elevated a senator of little prominence and few prospects from a curiosity into a contender. For years hardly anyone paid any mind to the Vermonter on Capitol Hill — he was regarded as a wacky socialist who could have emerged only from the granola precincts of Burlington, Vt., and he had little impact except as a gadfly.

But the important factor was less Sanders than his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who campaigned on an "inevitablity" platform that Sanders transformed into a liability. If she were the anointed candidate of the party elites, then in the eyes of Sanders and the following he swiftly acquired, she was by definition an unacceptable candidate in a campaign year when the elites were discredited. It did not help Clinton’s cause that she was awkward on the stump — stiff, over-prepared and over-scripted.

Sanders does not have that sort of foil this time. Warren is over-prepared in an entirely different way: brimming over with policy ideas, many of them indistinguishable from those of Sanders, but presented in a cheerier, more approachable way.

Clinton was programmed, but Warren is spontaneous.

Sanders still retains a hold on second-place outside of Iowa, however, though it is hard to deny that Warren has the momentum. Both would beat Trump if the election were being held right now. Harris would be in a statistical tie with the president, but polls this early rarely have any meaning except to political writers who don’t have the sense to ignore them.

David Shribman is former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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