BOSTON — Democrat Elizabeth Warren has raised more than $3 million and rocketed to the top of the polls, making it seem all but inevitable that she will get the nod to square off against Republican U.S. Sen. Scott Brown in 2012, but four Democrats who remain in the primary fight say they're not giving up just yet.
Alan Khazei, co-founder of City Year youth program, along with state Rep. Tom Conroy of Wayland, immigration attorney Marisa DeFranco of Salem and Newton resident Herb Robinson, all said in separate interviews with The Associated Press that they have no intention of letting Warren's surge drive them from the race.
"I do think there is an effort, by people in the establishment, to not have a (primary) election," Khazei said. "They want to have this election over before it has even begun."
Two other hopefuls recently threw in the towel, both citing the quick rise of Warren, a Harvard Law School professor and consumer activist.
Newton Mayor Setti Warren, whose candidacy was once touted by Gov. Deval Patrick, conceded that Elizabeth Warren had captured the imagination of Democrats nationally and in Massachusetts. Another candidate, Robert Massie, pointed to a profound shift in the momentum of the race in his withdrawal announcement.
But while Elizabeth Warren clearly has momentum and money on her side, the remaining Democrats insist they have something far more valuable: Time.
The primary, they point out, is still nearly 11 months away.
"If it was a month away or two months away, then it would be a real problem," said Khazei, who found himself in that situation during a truncated campaign following the August 2009 death of U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. State Attorney General Martha Coakley, a better-known and better-financed candidate, beat Khazei and two other candidates in the Democratic primary in December before being upset by Brown in the January special election.
But even if the calendar offers Khazei and others seeking the 2012 nomination time to make up ground, their task is far from easy.
First there is the matter of money. Warren pulled in $3.15 million in a short period between Aug. 16 and Sept. 30, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Khazei, the early fundraising leader before Warren's entry into the race, reported $1.3 million in contributions through Sept. 30, though the bulk of that came in the first six months of the year, before Warren entered.
The other candidates lagged far behind, according to the most recent FEC reports, with Conroy having raised $117,779 to date, DeFranco $9,071 and Robinson $12,056, including an $8,000 loan to his campaign.
To reach the September primary, the candidates also must get at least 15 percent of the delegates to the Democratic State Convention in June.
DeFranco shares Khazei's belief that some party insiders are trying to clear the field, avoiding a lengthy and potentially expensive primary fight and allowing Warren to focus on a November 2012 race against Brown.
"They just want to wrap it up, put a little bow on it and say 'We're done, let's have a general election for the next 12 months,'" said DeFranco, who added: "There is no such thing as a sure thing in politics."
Massachusetts Democratic Party Chairman John Walsh acknowledges that some in the party might want to avoid a primary, but he said he believes the competition would help the party and its eventual nominee.
"It's absolutely going to be to our benefit, and I really think it will be to the benefit of the winner of the primary," Walsh said.
A hard-fought primary fight can test a candidate's mettle and leave the nominee better prepared for the rigors of a general election campaign. But there are risks, Walsh acknowledged.
"The danger of any contest is that it gets out of hand, it gets nasty and personal and divisive and causes problems that can't be repaired," he said.
Kyle Sullivan, a spokesman for the Warren campaign, said the candidate is taking nothing for granted when it comes to the nomination and plans to begin a series of organizational meetings around the state next week.
"Like a lot of people, she came up the hard way and knows you have to earn everything you get," he said.
Warren, who helped President Barack Obama create a federal consumer protection agency, has cast herself as a defender of the middle class.
While some Republicans have tried to paint her as an out-of-touch Harvard liberal, Democratic rivals have largely avoided direct attacks. But they question whether Warren is the right candidate to take on Brown, who remains a popular figure in the state, according to recent polls.
Conroy suggested that Warren's status as the early party favorite could further alienate the same independent voters who propelled Brown to victory in last year's special election.
"I'm someone who can actually defuse Scott Brown's tea-party base, rather than energize it," Conroy said.
Khazei, who touts his grassroots organizing sills, said he admired Warren but questioned whether her life experience makes her the best candidate.
"What have we done with our lives?" Khazei asked. "We both went to law school, and then we took different paths. She became a professor, I went into the neighborhoods."
One of the biggest hurdles for Khazei and the other Democrats in the months ahead is simply making themselves known to voters.
Only 30 percent of the 475 registered voters surveyed in a recent Western New England University poll said they had not heard of Warren. Nearly 50 percent, however, said they had never heard of Khazei and far fewer were familiar with the other candidates.