After promising start, Kamala Harris looks for ways to break through

Francine Kiefer

Kamala Harris has always been a trailblazer. As the daughter of immigrant parents – her mother came from India and her father from Jamaica – she was the first woman elected (twice) as California’s attorney general, and the second African American woman elected to the United States Senate, which she entered two years ago. From the moment she got there, the chattering classes began speculating about White House ambitions.

Those lofty expectations seemed justified when she launched her presidential campaign in Oakland, California, in January, drawing an enormous crowd of about 20,000 people. She’s since brought in some big endorsements, including California Gov. Gavin Newsom, and an impressive fundraising haul.

What Senator Harris hasn’t been able to do of late is break past 10% in national polls.

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The California senator’s struggle to gain momentum reflects the unwieldy nature of this historically large Democratic field. With 24 hopefuls traipsing around the early voting states and giving back-to-back speeches at cattle calls like the recent Democratic Hall of Fame dinner in Iowa and the party convention in California, making an impression – even for the most promising contenders – is proving to be a real challenge.

Senator Harris has also been faulted for “pandering” to the left and appearing overly cautious on the trail. In a field with relatively few big policy differences between them, observers say it’s vital for candidates to communicate core beliefs and a clear sense of identity. But ultimately, for many Democratic voters, it all may come down to the same bottom line: Who can beat President Donald Trump?

“You have to have a message that resonates,” says Dianne Bystrom, a longtime observer of presidential campaigns and women in politics.

“She’s got great communication skills,” Dr. Bystrom says of Senator Harris, but “I don’t think she’s as specific about her message as [Massachusetts Sen.] Elizabeth Warren is.” She adds that Senator Harris needs to “further define herself.”

SECOND, BUT NOT FIRST

Of course, it’s early yet, and the upcoming debates – the first of which will take place at the end of this month – could offer many second- or third-tier candidates a chance to break out of the pack. Former Vice President Joe Biden is widely regarded as a weak front-runner, and most political observers believe the landscape could shift substantially before Democratic voters start casting ballots early next year.

Jim Messina, former President Barack Obama’s campaign manager, famously commented on MSNBC in April that if Senator Harris were a stock, he’d “buy her” – in other words, seeing a future rise as a good bet. 

In Iowa, the latest Des Moines Register/CNN poll has Senator Harris well behind Vice President Biden, as well as behind Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Senator Warren, and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Yet it also found her tied with Senator Warren as the top second choice of Iowa Democrats. Heading into the caucuses, that can be a sign of hidden strength.  

Still, being voters’ second choice is not the same as being their first choice.

At the recent California Democratic convention in San Francisco, James Smith, a firefighter from Long Beach, says Senator Harris is “great” but “not for 2020.” He’s standing behind the International Association of Firefighters endorsement of Vice President Biden. “He’s a friend of labor,” says Mr. Smith. “Joe’s our guy.”

Alex Núñez, of Mountain View, raves about Senator Harris’ performance interrogating Attorney General William Barr at a Senate hearing last month, an exchange that went viral on social media. As a former prosecutor, “she has a unique skill set,” he says. But he doesn’t envision her as president – more like a future attorney general who might someday prosecute President Trump.

“She’s forceful,” agrees Roberta, a retiree from New York who says she does not want her last name used for fear of becoming the target of a Trump tweet. Coming out of an event for Senator Sanders in Pasadena, California, she says she’s a fan of Senator Harris and finds her “very believable.” Still, she can’t commit to backing her. “I’m in a quandary. I don’t know who to vote for.”

CRISP AND ON POINT

Senator Harris connects well in person and on camera. At a recent campaign swing through California, she hugged, sashayed, and smiled her way through events, continually throwing the praise back at her supporters – whether they were immigrant activists or union members. Her delivery is crisp and on point.

When a man jumped onstage at a MoveOn forum in San Francisco and grabbed the microphone from her, the former district attorney kept her cool, calmly walking away as others – including her husband – hustled the man offstage.

In her stump speeches, she focuses on pocketbook and equality issues, particularly for women and women of color. She proposes a monthly tax credit of $500 for families earning less than $100,000 a year; a big boost for teacher salaries; and equal pay for women – with companies on the hook to prove they comply or else pay a fine.

Yet having detailed policy positions is not the same as having a message, warns Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist in Los Angeles. “The message has to be part of who you are, what you stand for, what you believe in, what your values are.”

Mr. Carrick describes the revolutionary Senator Sanders as a “classic stand-up-for-the-little-guy, a lefty, with policy underneath it all.” Similarly, Senator Warren has the “total package” – someone who belongs in the hall of fame of policy wonks in her fight against corporations and who is also emotionally driven by this fight.

Former Vice President Biden is another strong persona, “somebody who can bring us together, get things done, and most importantly, win.”

When asked about Senator Harris, Mr. Carrick pauses. “I’m not sure what her message actually is. And that’s really a challenge.”

Lately, she has been trying some new approaches. At the California Democratic convention, she leaned much more into an anti-Trump message, built around a series of “truths” about President Trump’s “lies” and calling for the start of impeachment proceedings.

At the Iowa dinner last weekend, she furthered this line of attack – emphasizing her prosecutorial chops and portraying President Trump as having “defrauded” the American people when it comes to health care, taxes, and national security. 

“I am prepared to make the case for America and to prosecute the case against Donald Trump,” the former district attorney said.

RECALIBRATING HER PITCH

The rhetorical shift may be in response to critics who’ve been arguing she ought to present herself as a pragmatist. Her main competitor in the race is not Senator Sanders, these critics say, but Vice President Biden. They argue that she made a serious error in pandering to the left, pulled there in part by her sister, Maya Harris, her progressive campaign chairwoman. 

Senator Harris has supported liberal causes such as Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and the decriminalization of sex work, and she has indicated an openness to reparations for slavery, as well as having a “conversation” about voting rights for violent felons. In several cases, she’s later had to walk back her comments or try to clarify.

It is a pattern similar to her record on some issues in California, when she changed positions on the death penalty and stepped back from her controversial policy to punish parents for their children’s truancy, which resulted in a few parents going to jail.

David Axelrod, a former top adviser to President Obama, has criticized Senator Harris for being overly cautious in answering questions – trying to have things both ways. He told the Los Angeles Times that “she’s a brilliant person,” but “what we’ve learned so far is that she’s great at asking questions but timid at answering them.”

Senator Harris’ fans are fervent in their support, and say she is facing strong winds of sexism and racism – a point that Dr. Bystrom, who’s now retired from Iowa State University in Ames, also makes. After Hillary Clinton lost to President Trump in the Electoral College, the possibility of losing again is making some Democrats “very nervous” about nominating a woman, and a woman of color, Dr. Bystrom believes. 

“I think Kamala Harris will compete well. But a lot will depend on whether Democrats think it’s less risky to nominate an old white guy instead of a younger woman of color,” she says. “I think it may come down to that.”

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