Kamala Harris Touts Tough Image as Race Slips in Key States

Hanna Trudo
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The mention of Attorney General Bill Barr as a point of contact for the Ukrainians should they start investigating former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter was just one of the shocking details a memo of the July phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky revealed to the public on Wednesday. 

But to Sen. Kamala Harris’ (D-CA) presidential campaign, it was an opportunity. 

Shortly after the document’s release, Harris’ staff was circulating a video of her tough questioning of Barr during his confirmation hearing to get her back into the national conversation.  

“Sen. Kamala Harris absolutely nailed AG Bill Barr back in May and now he’s in big trouble,” the progressive website Daily Kos’ account tweeted. Ian Sams, Harris’ national press secretary, gave the story—and several similar takes throughout the day—a retweet. 

“This now has 5 million views,” Lily Adams, Harris’ communications director, wrote on Twitter, linking to a C-SPAN video that showed the full exchange between Harris and Barr.

But far outside Washington, on the presidential campaign trail, Harris is receiving less attention. 

The senator’s campaign had a fantastic Week 1. The crowds, the money, and the momentum all aligned following her January launch. Six months later, the first Democratic debate in June—where Harris landed a powerful blow against Biden—only helped crystallize a star on the rise. 

But since that moment her campaign has struggled to replicate those initial boosts. A series of national and early state polls released in recent days provide a grim glimpse into the California Democrat’s current standing, plummeting in some cases to low single digits and leaving Democrats to question what a plausible path forward would look like.  

Interviews with more than 10 Democratic operatives and activists with deep ties to Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina reveal a series of missteps in Harris’ presidential campaign: not showing up enough in some places, and in others failing to knock Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) off track. 

And then there are the messaging issues. 

Several Democrats interviewed said they still weren’t quite sure who or what Harris was all about.   

“Warren is the clearest example of a candidate who is prosecuting a worldview,” one national Democratic strategist said, referencing Harris’ often-repeated line that she is best equipped to “prosecute the case” against Trump. “Biden is prosecuting the case ‘I’m the guy who can win,’” the strategist went on. “And Kamala is, what?”

In South Carolina, the first early primary with a significant African-American population, Democrats say Harris’ campaign has been hamstrung by voters’ longstanding affection for Biden, who has strong support with that crucial voting bloc; and a budding interest in Warren, the Massachusetts progressive with growing momentum in the primary. While things can change in the months before the first votes are cast, Democrats caution that a weak performance from Harris in Iowa and New Hampshire, where she has struggled to break out of the single digits, means she risks a dangerous ripple effect elsewhere.

“We’ve got to put Iowa first,” Adams said in a recent call with reporters. Harris plans to visit the state each week in October, Adams said, and will add 60 additional full-time organizers and open up 10 new offices. 

In talks about the influential state, Democrats often point to former President Obama’s success in the 2008 caucus as a pivotal turn-around moment for his historic campaign. “By this point in 2007 Barack Obama had been three times,” Steven Drahozal, chair of the Dubuque County Democrats, told The Daily Beast. With the smart money at the time on Hillary Clinton, Obama won the caucus after a breakout performance at the Democrats’ annual J-J Dinner. The rest is history.

Need another example? Just look to 2004 and then-Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who was at one point on life support in a multi-field contest. After firing parts of his campaign staff and camping out in Iowa, he won the caucus with 37 percent of the vote and went on to secure the Democratic nomination. 

The most optimistic outcome for Harris would be cobbling together a similar route to success. And while strategists and activists agree it’s hardly too late for the California senator to pull off a surprise victory, warning signs are popping up for her campaign in Iowa and beyond. 

“In June she said we were going to be seeing her a lot,” Drahozal said. “We have not heard back from her directly.”

JoAnn Hardy, the chair of Cerro Gordo County Democrats, said that while many voters remain undecided in their final pick, a few months ahead of the Feb. 3 caucus is not too early to start locking down support.

“We’re starting to see people choose candidates. You’ve got to get in there before that happens,” Hardy said. “I’m hearing she’s moving to Iowa, but she has a lot of ground to make up.”

Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who’s worked on multiple past presidential campaigns, including for Kerry’s 2004 rival former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, stressed the unpredictable nature of the race, but criticized what he sees as an initial blunder.

“You can’t do what they did,” Trippi said about Harris’ early Iowa maneuvering. “They made a huge error in strategy.”

In both early contests, it’s hard to mention the name Kamala Harris without hearing a follow-up point about Warren, who has in recent days surged ahead of Biden for the first time in Iowa and New Hampshire, and well ahead of Harris. Hailing from neighboring Massachusetts, Warren came in at 27 percent in a Monmouth University poll in New Hampshire released on Wednesday. Harris dropped to 3 percent, down 3 points from her 6 percent in the survey in May.

“If the strategy is New Hampshire is not important to their campaign, that’s an OK strategy, but don’t get mad when people point it out,” one Democrat who has long worked in the state said.

Judy Reardon, a Democratic activist and former longtime adviser to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), wondered about the initial strategy for the first-in-the-nation primary.

“I’d love to know the internal thinking,” she said. 

Harris has been questioned about whether she’s actually focused on the New Hampshire primary but consistently said she’s committed to the state. In a campaign briefing memo obtained by Politico, Harris’ talking points to Granite Staters reportedly included a line to emphasize that “NH absolutely a priority for my campaign—excited to be back for the convention and other events around the state.” Two days after attending the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s state convention, Dwight Davis, the vice president of the party’s African-American caucus, endorsed Harris. 

Taking place 18 days after New Hampshire, the primary in South Carolina, where Harris’ campaign has spent significant resources building a ground game, becomes more difficult to win if she can’t pull off a strong showing in the first two contests, Democrats in all three states emphasized. Prior to a recent visit on Saturday, Harris hadn’t been to the state in more than 70 days.

Harris’ campaign declined to comment for this story but pointed to a recent briefing call with reporters that detailed new aspects of its early state strategies. In South Carolina, her campaign intends to double its staff in November.

The most recent CBS News/YouGov poll taken between Aug. 28 and Sept. 4 placed Harris at 7 percent in South Carolina. While she’s spent significantly more time there than in the first two contests, most recently for the Charleston NAACP’s annual Freedom Fund Banquet, Democrats in the state say Biden’s long-standing ties there and Warren’s recent surge elsewhere complicate Harris’ path forward.

“The vice president has made South Carolina something close to being his second home,” Don Fowler, a former leader of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said. Biden’s support in the African-American community, he added, will likely stay strong for the next two or three months, but it might take a conclusive turn after January, as Iowa’s caucus nears.

“For Kamala, what happened in these states is that she didn’t stake out a lane and stay focused in that lane,” one Democratic strategist in the state unaffiliated with any campaign, said. “I think she underestimated the strength in the black community of Joe Biden, and she underestimated the strength of the progressive community” for Warren.

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