Indian-American presidential candidate Kamala Harris faces uphill climb after ups and downs

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks to journalists after the Democratic presidential debate in Atlanta on Nov. 20, 2019. (Washington Post photo by Melina Mara)

GREENVILLE, S.C. – Sen. Kamala Harris had everything she needed to make her pitch. Big yellow cutout letters spelled “Justice for the People” on the stage behind her. White folding chairs splayed out ahead of her, most of them filled, and their occupants seemed happy to see her. Nothing smelled of a flailing campaign.

“I’m spending a lot of time in what I am now thinking of and considering to be my second home, South Carolina,” Harris told the crowd, drawing some nods of approval.

“I’m also spending a lot of time in Iowa,” she added.

It was typical of Harris and her campaign, which has often displayed a desire to be everything to everyone that has instead left voters with questions about who she is, what she believes and what her priorities and convictions would be as president.

As a result, her candidacy is now teetering, weighed down by indecision within her campaign, her limits as a candidate and dwindling funds that have forced her to retreat in some places at a moment she expected to be surging. After last week’s debate in Atlanta, where she won high marks, her advisers were simply hoping she did well enough to inspire people to donate enough money so she could air a new ad. As of Wednesday, they hadn’t.

In a race marked by stalled candidates, early dropouts and late entries, Harris’s long-stalled candidacy stands out as one of the more fluid. At the outset, party leaders viewed her as one of their best chances to beat President Donald Trump – a rising female star with a mixed-race background who could rebuild the coalition of voters that propelled Barack Obama to the presidency.

That sense was affirmed at her launch rally in January, when she bounded onto the stage in Oakland, California, and lit into Trump, to the delight of a crowd of more than 22,000 people. Trump praised Harris at the time for having the “best opening so far” and a “better crowd, better enthusiasm” than the other Democratic candidates.

But Harris has struggled to re-create that level of enthusiasm. While she has consistently sought to be the candidate who could appeal to all parts of her party, she has veered from one message to another in an effort to kindle support.

“If she doesn’t turn it around in the next couple months, what I think we may end up saying what doomed her candidacy is there just wasn’t any clear rationale,” said Paul Maslin, a longtime Democratic pollster who has watched Harris’s evolution for years. “She didn’t give the voters – they didn’t give the voters – a clear sense of ‘why am I doing this.’

“I think in California, I know a lot of people in the Bay Area and in San Francisco . . . were always a little worried about that,” Maslin said. “Was she up or down, here or there, and it sort of played itself out unfortunately. She’s been the biggest, I think, negative surprise of the campaign.”

Harris staffers and advisers acknowledge that they are not in the position they expected to be two months before the Iowa caucuses. Some say privately that they know Harris likely needs other candidates to falter to regain top-tier footing, but they also point hopefully to polling that shows many voters have not settled on a candidate.

Their plan for the past few months has been simple: Put Harris in front of as many Iowa voters as possible, hoping a strong showing there can propel her into a top finish in South Carolina and beyond.

Senator Kamala Harris gives a thumbs down as she speaks during the 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Houston, Texas, U.S., September 12, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

“A competitive finish in Iowa will demonstrate she is viable beyond that first contest and into later states like South Carolina and Super Tuesday, where she continues to earn endorsements and gain traction,” Harris press secretary Ian Sams said. “As voters continue to kick the tires on five, six or seven candidates, Kamala’s unique message of pursuing justice – especially as impeachment looms – and her demonstrated ability to go toe-to-toe with Trump on a debate stage will be a draw and give her momentum.”

In Greenville, the crowd cheered Harris when she finished, then clamored forward for a selfie scrum – a relatively recent addition for a candidate who used to rush off to the next event instead of shaking hands and taking pictures. Here, as elsewhere, voters generally say they like Harris and haven’t ruled her out. But few identify her as their first choice.

“She’s very lively and direct on TV, and I wanted to see her personally, hear what she has to say,” said Chuck Ford, a 54-year-old engineer who was waiting for Harris in Greenville. “I can’t say I’m 100% Kamala, but I’m 100% for someone other than what’s in there now. I still like Warren, Biden and Bernie. They’re all right there. I don’t know.”

At first, Harris pitched herself as the candidate “speaking truth” and asserted that she alone would talk candidly about the nation’s problems, including racism, sexism and gun violence. But she tiptoed around specific aspects of her record, which undermined the truth-talk, as did equivocations on Medicare-for-all and other policies.

In June, she decided to embrace her record as a prosecutor more directly in a speech in front of the Charleston chapter of the NAACP, where she explained why she became a prosecutor, why she was proud of her work, and why she decided to try to make change from the inside.

“I knew the unilateral power prosecutors had with the stroke of a pen to make a decision about someone else’s life or death, whether someone will be charged or let off,” Harris said then. “I knew that it made a difference to have the people making those decisions also be the ones who went to our church, had children in our schools, coached our Little League teams and knew our neighborhoods.”

After that speech, which ended months of treading carefully around her record, Harris hopped in the car and told her staffers “that felt good,” they said.

But her approach soon switched again, as Harris built a stump speech and an entire bus tour through Iowa around what she called a “3 a.m. agenda” – issues she said keep Americans up at night. The message was meant to position her between the more sweeping ideological platforms of Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and the return-to-normalcy agenda of former vice president Joe Biden. But Harris, so direct in prosecutor mode, never seemed as confident delivering that broader message.

As her message shifted, Harris took further criticism for shifting positions on Medicare-for-all, something many of her fellow candidates have since done, too. Initially, Harris said she “wanted to get rid” of private insurance. Then she released her own version of the plan that included a role for private insurance, a switch she said she made after listening to voters.

Her debate performances also fluctuated. In the first debate, she delivered a blow to Biden when she pointed out she was the product of a busing initiative to end desegregation – a plan Biden opposed. Biden and his campaign later suggested that Harris’s current position on that issue – support for busing as one of many potential tools to desegregate resistant localities – was the same as his then. After an initial bump in the polls, Harris sank again. Harris’s campaign hoped the attack would paint Biden as out of touch with current attitudes toward racial justice, but many older voters said they found Harris’s attacks opportunistic and off-putting.

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks as South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Kamala Harris listen during the 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Houston, Texas, U.S., September 12, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Biden fought back in a debate a month later, using Harris’s health-care shift to paint Harris as an equivocator.

“This idea is a bunch of malarkey,” Biden said. “And to be very blunt and to be very straightforward, you can’t beat President Trump with double talk on this plan.”

In response to an up-and-down summer, Harris’s campaign retooled her pitch again. She settled into another version that plays on her past: “Justice is on the ballot.” Harris argues that injustice is at the heart of many of the country’s ills and that she is the candidate best equipped to deliver justice. Her campaign thinks it’s a message that suits her – following the Liberty and Justice Dinner in Des Moines, Iowa, earlier this month, her campaign signed up 136 precinct captains, covering almost 10% of state’s precincts in just hours, according to her Iowa staff.

Harris has also been hindered by the internal dynamics of her campaign, which is run by her sister, Maya, along with longtime advisers and their partners in a California-based consulting firm. Multiple people in and around the campaign described competing power centers and said it’s unclear who, exactly, is in charge.

Within the campaign’s Baltimore headquarters, there continues to be unrest about decision-making, according to several people familiar with its inner workings. They say Juan Rodriguez, one of Harris’s California consultants who took over the reins midway through her 2016 Senate campaign, holds the title of campaign manager but does not always have the final say, particularly on policy positions and messaging. Often, they said, no one knows who has the final word. None could outline the campaign’s decision-making structure.

Some close to the campaign suggested that Rodriguez’s inexperience – he has never run a presidential campaign – has contributed to its issues, particularly when it comes to finances. In the first week of July, for example, the campaign hired 25 staffers in New Hampshire even though Harris never banked on a strong showing there, given other candidates’ ties to the region and the lack of a diverse electorate. Four months later, the campaign laid off most of those hired there.

Aside from Rodriguez, Maya Harris has input in most major decisions, as do some longtime advisers, which means aides have been caught between them on occasion. Even after they restructured their leadership to include Harris’s former Senate chief of staff, Rohini Kosoglu, in late October, the lines of authority remained murky, according to campaign aides who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

The conflicting visions of Maya Harris and her sister’s other advisers complicated their decision on how to deal with the candidate’s record as a prosecutor in San Francisco and as California’s attorney general.

Maya Harris, whose political leanings developed in liberal activist circles, promoted a more apologetic posture to appeal to criminal justice advocates and black activists – and has tried to pull her sister further left, according to multiple campaign staffers and longtime Harris allies. Other advisers opposed that approach, wondering what Harris could offer to voters if not her criminal justice résumé, and suggested she trumpet it. Initially, they settled somewhere in between, using her record as a prosecutor to explain her experience but not necessarily leaning on it as a staple of her pitch.

Maya Harris, through a spokesman, declined to comment for this report. Rodriguez issued a statement: “Campaigns are long and arduous, but we are all united in our commitment to making sure Kamala is the nominee to take on Donald Trump and win. We have had to make tough decisions to compete in Iowa and ensure Kamala is in a position to be the Democratic nominee, but Maya, I, and the rest of the amazing team are pouring our heart and soul into winning this campaign.”

Harris’s new focus on Iowa comes after months in which she was a faint presence there. She spent 15 days in the state in October and was to spend 12 more there in November, including Thanksgiving – the sole major candidate to do spend the holiday in the state. Instead of the bigger, town-hall-style events the campaign staged there previously, Harris is now holding smaller gatherings – intimate Sunday dinners, smaller rural meet-and-greets.

Earlier this month, Harris made her way to tiny Winthrop, Iowa, where her campaign’s SUV parked yards away from a silo and where she chatted with a few dozen voters in the chilly upstairs of a barn. There, a local woman broke into tears while speaking to the California senator after the event.

“I came today because I just wanted some reassurance that we aren’t just going to hell in a handbag,” said Lisa Halvorson Goodwin, who operates a winery. She said that she got that reassurance and that Harris comforted her. She said she thinks not everyone is giving Harris a fair chance.

“You would be hard pressed to get me to believe that people look at males and females running the same way,” she said. Halvorson Goodwin is not the only voter wondering how much of Harris’s struggles can be attributed to biases in the media and from parts of the electorate.

“I think she’s smart. I think she’s a smart lady. I know from her background she has a good sense of what is needed and what’s going on. And how to accomplish what it is that she’s trying to accomplish. My overall sense – I like her,” said Charles Lewis, chairman of the Greenwood County, South Carolina, Democratic Party.

“What I think myself, is because of what Obama went through, I think a lot of Democrats don’t want to see that polarization with another black candidate, plus female,” he added. “. . . For that reason, I think she’s having a tough time.”

Staffers and surrogates argue that Harris hasn’t gotten the same media attention as her white or male colleagues. Harris has begun talking about “the donkey in the room” – the fact that no woman, let alone a woman of color, has ever won the presidency.

She tells the story of an old woman whose door she knocked on in Iowa when campaigning for Obama. The woman wouldn’t open the door to her and told her through the chain that America would never let a black man win the presidency. Harris said she persuaded her to vote for Obama anyway. When she finishes that story, Harris explains that she has heard people “aren’t ready” for her in every race she has ever run – and that she has won them all.

After Harris relayed that story and others to the clamoring crowd in Greenville, South Carolina, Walter Montagne, a 74-year-old Vietnam veteran, waited patiently for his chance to tell Harris some news she hasn’t heard as often as she has needed to lately: She had won his vote.

“I liked Biden because of experience and electability. But this lady is impressive,” Montagne said. “To stand up there – and I know she’s done it over and over and over – but to provide that authenticity of background, and a fighter, those things are moving me.”

Harris covered her heart with her hand, smiled, and cocked her head to the side, as if to show that he had moved her. The question unanswered is whether she can move enough people like him.

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