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Elizabeth Warren says she's not running for president. Should we believe her?

Win McNamee / Getty

Last week, several liberal groups and hundreds of former Obama campaign staffers called on Sen. Elizabeth Warren to make a 2016 presidential bid. But in an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep: this morning, Elizabeth Warren said four times that she's not running for president  — as she's said many, many times before. Here are the key new quotes:

"I'm not running for president...

...I told them, 'I'm not running for president.'

...I am not running for president...

...I am not running for president..."

Sure, that may seem definitive to a casual reader. But as Warren has many times before, she couches her declaration only in the present tense — "I am not running" — rather than going further and saying "I will not run" or "I will never run."

This is absolutely a deliberate decision on Warren's part — Jeff Zeleny of ABC News pressed Warren on her word choice earlier this year, and she continued to studiously stick to the present tense. That means she's choosing not to rule out a future run (Warren would be 71 for the 2020 election), or even a 2016 run.

Politicians change their minds when circumstances change

Politicians' denials of interest in running for president are often later contradicted. In February of 2011, Rick Perry was asked if he'd run for president, and responded: "No, no, no, no, no." He jumped into the race just six months later. Chris Christie offered similarly adamant denials through much of that year, but when donors tried to coax him into the race, he spent two months seriously considering it a bid before again opting against it. And then there was Barack Obama, who repeatedly said he wouldn't run for president in until he began floating a bid in late 2006.

In each case, the situation changed. Mitt Romney looked like a strong frontrunner early in the year, and scared off challengers. But his poll numbers remained tepid into the summer, and several key elements of the party worried about his changes — so Perry and Christie saw a potential opportunity. For Obama, as Bush's popularity plummeted and the Iraq war situation got worse and worse, his chances to supplant the expected frontrunner Hillary Clinton looked better and better.

The difference for the Democrats this time around is that Hillary Clinton's poll numbers for the primary are actually extremely good — far better than her own polling in 2008, or Romney's in 2012. She's also winning endorsements from various party figures even though she's not yet running.

So, if these circumstances change — if Hillary doesn't run, or her standing in the polls begins to plummet — it seems conceivable that Warren could heed the calls of various activists and jump into the race. But if Warren thought a presidential bid looked like a promising and appealing prospect under current conditions, she'd be floating the possibility of a run now, like Jeb Bush is. For the moment, it's best to take her at her word that she's focused on the Senate.

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