HANOVER, N.H. – Somewhere in the middle of a few dozen people, a barely visible Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., had to yell over the noise of a jackhammer, then a Dartmouth student demanding a selfie. The noisy group was outside in a testament to Harris’ star power, since the fire marshal had long since said the room chosen for Harris’s address was at capacity.
Despite that sort of ability to charm voters and an impressive campaign launch, Harris finds herself straining to elevate her message above the noise. She has, at moments, seemed indecisive and cautious on the national stage, suggesting an aversion to risk that could undermine her self-description as a truth-teller.
Harris is also capable of turning in deft performances – a skill on display at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday as she confronted Attorney General William Barr with pointed questions. But she appears less comfortable when someone else is setting the agenda, as at a recent CNN town hall meeting.
Even some supporters say Harris needs to convey more confidence and clarity – especially in nationally televised campaign events – to avoid being overshadowed by her rivals at a critical moment in the campaign. Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state legislator who supports Harris and has campaigned with her, noted that at the CNN event Harris skirted several questions by saying she wanted to “have a conversation” about the subject.
“I understand the deliberateness, but you can’t be cautious,” Sellers said. “Saying ‘We’re going to have a conversation about this’ – sometimes people want to be fed. They don’t want a conversation. Just tell us what you think.”
On the trail, Harris seems to be feeling for the right balance between authenticity and discipline. Voters at her events often applaud her informal style and spontaneous wit, and leave saying they feel a connection. But that relaxed approach can invite missteps; after Harris said she wanted to end private health insurance, for example, she softened that position and has repeatedly had to reexplain it.
“When the campaign sees you make a mistake, they try to bubble-wrap you,” Sellers said. “People that knew Hillary [Clinton] knew her to be the funny, humble, intelligent person that she was. But a lot of people didn’t get to see her because she was bubble-wrapped. I just hope we don’t bubble-wrap Senator Harris.”
Many Democratic strategists believe Harris has one of the clearer paths to the nomination, if not necessarily an easy one. As an African-American woman, Harris could build a broad, Obama-style coalition, they say. If she performs respectably in Iowa or New Hampshire, they envision her sweeping into South Carolina and many of the subsequent primaries in the South and her home state of California.
But some supporters worry that in this field – which includes former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who need no introduction; Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who’s building herself into a policy pacesetter; and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, emerging as a fresh-faced outsider – Harris needs to establish surer footing.
Voters at her campaign events almost uniformly say she captured their attention with her tough questions last September for then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, an episode reminiscent of this week’s interrogation of Barr. For Harris, who presents herself as a truth-teller and hard-nosed ex-prosecutor, a sense of equivocation or timidity could undermine the persona that attracted voters in the first place.
For many analysts, Harris’s April 22 appearance at a CNN town hall meeting encapsulated her challenge. She announced a major policy initiative, saying she would take executive action shortly after becoming president to expand gun control if Congress does not act. But that announcement was overshadowed when she declined to answer questions on whether imprisoned felons should have the vote and on whether the voting age should drop to 16.
Instead of stating a position, Harris said she was “open to the conversation” on those issues, a phrase she used so many times that night that CNN aired a montage, panning the line as a go-to dodge.
The noncommittal answers prompted follow-up questions in subsequent days, prolonging the moment as Harris repeated that she believes incarcerated felons should lose their rights but avoided coming down on the voting issue.
Harris characterizes such responses as thoughtfulness, not evasion. “I’m going to be very thoughtful and serious about the issues I weigh in on,” Harris said. “I’m going to think about it. I’m going to talk to experts, and I’m going to make a decision and I’ll let you know.”
Harris spokesman Ian Sams contrasted that with President Donald Trump’s rapid-fire style of governing. The candidate’s willingness to acknowledge when she is still thinking through a complex question, he said, does not undermine her truth-telling message but reinforces it.
“She isn’t going to shoot from the hip on issues. She wants to have well-researched answers and talk to experts before establishing her stance,” Sams said. “I think it’s a positive contrast to President Trump that she wants to have conversations about these issues and doesn’t just make policy tweet by tweet.”
Neither felon rights nor the voting age is likely to determine the Democratic nomination or the general election. But the event illustrated the ease with which the campaign’s efforts to craft distinguishing moments can succumb to the higher-decibel conversations of the day if Harris does not deliver crisp answers.
Often, she does. Harris was unexpectedly asked recently if she supports a third gender category on federal IDs besides “male” and “female.” She appeared not to have thought about it before, but paused only momentarily before saying yes.
And Harris is hardly the only Democratic candidate proceeding with caution. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas thrives on smaller campaign events but has yet to put himself in the national spotlight by agreeing to a televised town hall. Sanders delivers a boisterous message, but rarely takes questions from audiences. Biden has taken few questions from the media or voters in his nascent campaign.
Every candidate in the 21-person Democratic field is juggling a need to stand out with the risk of gaffes. So did previous presidential candidates; former vice president Al Gore in 2000 was pilloried for his alleged exaggerations, and when he responded by delivering more scripted comments, he was derided as “wooden.” For Harris, as with her competitors, that push-and-pull between giving straightforward answers and leaving wiggle room can be stifling.
Many aspects of Harris’s campaign are disciplined, including a rarely altered stump speech and her team’s tightly controlled approach to the race more broadly. Aides say Harris’s experience as a prosecutor leaves her sensitive to the responsibilities of power, and that if she doesn’t have a researched answer, she doesn’t want to give one.
They also say no one is trying to mold Harris. And the candidate has seemed more confident in her recent campaign events, fielding awkward moments with wit, using the word “bleep” to imply expletives, and moving around the stage more freely.
Democratic donor Susie Tompkins Buell, a former Hillary Clinton supporter who has donated to Harris and held fundraising receptions for her, said that Harris is beginning to let more of her personality show.
“I think Kamala is solid and becoming more comfortable with herself,” Tompkins Buell said. “It seems Americans are craving authenticity, which she is showing.”
In all four early primary states – Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina – Harris has packed rooms with interested voters. When she shakes hands, voters say they feel a connection. One recent viral video showed her giving public speaking advice to a group of teenage girls, one of whom was so star-struck she looked panicked when she realized she’d been clutching Harris’s hands for 30 seconds.
In another memorable moment, at campaign stop in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Harris was describing “the talk” African-American parents give their sons about implicit bias in the criminal justice system. A young voter yelled “Ooh!”, initially thinking Harris meant a talk about sex.
Harris looked over and said, “I don’t think this is the talk you’re thinking of,” breaking into laughter. As the chuckles dissipated, Harris smoothly pulled the conversation back to the more serious subject.
“I think she’s a lot more personable than Hillary, and Hillary was my girl – I loved her,” said Tripp Plank, a 36-year-old from Charlotte, North Carolina, who traveled to South Carolina to see Harris. “She’s not afraid to say what she thinks, but not in the rough way of Warren or Hillary.”
Unlike Clinton in 2016, Harris is still introducing herself to Democrats. The field has largely taken shape following Biden’s entry, and the campaigns are beginning to plan for the next likely pivot point, a debate scheduled for June 26 and 27 in Miami.
If there is grumbling at Harris’s events, it usually relates to logistics: Harris was late and the wait is too long. Someone was turned away because the room was already full. Someone can’t see Harris, who people always seem to think is taller than 5-foot-2. Not all voters leave her events committed to Harris, but few leave ruling her out.
Harris, for her part, no longer muses in her stump speech about what she will do “if” elected, instead saying “when I’m elected president.”
Harris’s campaign hopes the policy initiatives she’s released – a teacher pay boost and new gun control measures – will help solidify her profile.
“Frankly, I’m fed up with this issue,” Harris said when beginning her spiel on guns to a town hall last week, saying she’d move forcefully if Congress can’t “get its act together.” It was a moment that echoed her well-received Senate interrogations, and few moments on the campaign trail drew so much applause.