Har­ris cam­paign seems to be stuck in neu­tral

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Insight - BY DAVID CATANESE AND EMILY CADEI [email protected]­clatchydc.com [email protected]­clatchydc.com

She’s taken a nose-dive in polling and strug­gled to hit her stride on an over­ar­ch­ing mes­sage – and now donors are be­gin­ning to won­der about her longterm.

The pres­i­den­tial cam­paign of U.S. Sen. Ka­mala Har­ris, a Demo­crat from Cal­i­for­nia, is sud­denly con­fronting a cross­roads.

This past week has been par­tic­u­larly harsh for Har­ris. A CNN poll of na­tional Democrats had her cra­ter­ing to just 5 per­cent, amount­ing to a 12-point drop from June, the largest de­cline of any can­di­date. “I have no con­cerns about a na­tional poll of 400 peo­ple,” said Bakari Sellers, a Har­ris sup­porter and CNN con­trib­u­tor. “Ev­ery other poll has her fourth at 8 to 10 per­cent. She’s still the most tal­ented per­son in the field.”

Yet the cam­paign didn’t quib­ble with CNN and other polls in early July, when they showed Har­ris en­joy­ing a fa­vor­able bump af­ter the first de­bate. In fact, they read­ily cel­e­brated them. Now, a Har­ris aide dis­misses the polling as “fickle.” “It’s not just Ka­mala – a lot of can­di­dates have had upticks and downticks,” the aide said.

Hav­ing slid back to fourth place in most pres­i­den­tial primary polls, Har­ris is fac­ing a core ques­tion about her po­lit­i­cal iden­tity that may prove cru­cial to res­ur­rect­ing her un­even path to

ward the Demo­cratic Party nom­i­na­tion.

With front-runner Joe Bi­den, a for­mer vice pres­i­dent, firmly oc­cu­py­ing the cen­trist es­tab­lish­men­tar­ian lane and ar­dent pro­gres­sives U.S. Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren of Mas­sachusetts and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Ver­mont com­fort­ably cham­pi­oning the lib­eral wing of the party, Har­ris is bat­tling a pre­car­i­ous per­cep­tion that she’s a politi­cian re­ly­ing heav­ily on per­sonal charisma but lack­ing a clear and com­pelling case for her can­di­dacy.

“She’s try­ing to find ground be­tween Bi­den in the cen­ter and those two on the left. She’s sand­wiched in be­tween those two places and it makes it look like, ‘What is that?,’” said Joe Trippi, the Demo­cratic op­er­a­tive who steered Howard Dean’s 2004 in­sur­gent cam­paign for the pres­i­dency.

Noth­ing has crys­tal­lized Har­ris’ conundrum more vividly than her re­ver­sal on Medi­care for All, a pol­icy she lum­ber­ingly de­fended for months be­fore re­treat­ing from its most dra­matic pro­vi­sion: the elim­i­na­tion of pri­vate in­surance.

Her pro­posal, un­veiled shortly be­fore the sec­ond de­bate in late July, sought to carve out some mid­dle ground, promis­ing to move all Amer­i­cans into the Medi­care sys­tem while main­tain­ing a role for pri­vate in­sur­ers. Se­nior Demo­cratic op­er­a­tives in Cal­i­for­nia said that ap­proach re­flects the rep­u­ta­tion she de­vel­oped in the state for cau­tion and prag­ma­tism – at­tributes that could serve her well in the gen­eral elec­tion but have trou­bled her out­reach to primary vot­ers.

Still, the slow-rolling flip-flop on health care – long the top is­sue for Demo­cratic vot­ers – re­minded some Repub­li­cans of another for­mer White House hope­ful who was hob­bled by in­con­sis­ten­cies on is­sues.

“You could com­pare her to Mitt in the sense that Mitt Rom­ney was the moderate gover­nor of a lib­eral state who had to tack right in a Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial primary. Ka­mala Har­ris was a tough pros­e­cu­tor who has to tack left,” says Alex Castel­lanos, a Repub­li­can con­sul­tant who ad­vised Rom­ney’s 2008 run.

Har­ris, a for­mer at­tor­ney gen­eral and dis­trict at­tor­ney, has pred­i­cated her cam­paign on her abil­ity to ef­fec­tively “pros­e­cute” the case against Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. But the po­tency of that as­ser­tion has been un­der­cut by a pros­e­cu­to­rial record that is an anath­ema to many of the pro­gres­sives she’s now try­ing to court. It’s led to a range of blis­ter­ing and hy­per­bolic claims – from Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gab­bard’s sear­ing de­bate take­down to ac­tivists on the left who are fond of de­ri­sively call­ing her “a cop,” to Repub­li­cans ea­ger to cast ex­treme as­ser­tions.

“When you’ve locked up more black Amer­i­cans than Ge­orge Wal­lace, it’s hard for you to be the great­est civil rights ad­vo­cate in Amer­i­can his­tory,” Castel­lanos quipped. “She is caught be­tween who she was and who the Demo­cratic primary electorate wants her to be.”

Ian Sams, a Har­ris cam­paign spokesman, called the Castel­lanos’ com­par­i­son “out­ra­geous and gross.”

As a can­di­date for dis­trict at­tor­ney, Har­ris ran on a plat­form that promised to “re­store re­la­tions with the po­lice and run a pro­fes­sional law of­fice,” for­mer San Fran­cisco Public De­fender Jeff Adachi told McClatchy in Jan­uary. “She was known as a fair pros­e­cu­tor,” Adachi added, but “she was def­i­nitely a law-and-or­der type of pros­e­cu­tor.”

While she con­tin­ues to plug a San Fran­cisco pro­gram de­signed to keep youth from re-of­fend­ing, she had backed away from other law en­force­ment poli­cies she pro­moted there, such as a tru­ancy ini­tia­tive that pe­nal­ized the par­ents of chil­dren miss­ing school with fines and, po­ten­tially, jail time.

Har­ris said in a CNN in­ter­view in May that jail­ing par­ents “was an un­in­tended con­se­quence” of a state law she spon­sored, a state­ment Fac­tCheck.org ruled was “mis­lead­ing.”

Dur­ing her 2010 run for at­tor­ney gen­eral, Har­ris bragged that San Fran­cisco’s con­vic­tion rates were at their high­est level in 15 years and op­posed a statewide ini­tia­tive to le­gal­ize recre­ational mar­i­juana. In 2015, how­ever, she came out in sup­port of med­i­cal mar­i­juana. And as a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date she has called for all mar­i­juana to be le­gal­ized.

In re­cent months, she’s even shifted on whether she would urge the Depart­ment of Jus­tice to pur­sue ob­struc­tion charges against Trump once he’s out of of­fice. In June, she told NPR, “they would have no choice, and that they should, yes.” But dur­ing the sec­ond Demo­cratic de­bate, she re­versed her­self say­ing she “would never di­rect the Depart­ment of Jus­tice to do what­ever it be­lieves it should do.”

Even her mem­o­rable con­fronta­tion with Bi­den dur­ing June’s first de­bate over fed­er­ally man­dated bus­ing for school chil­dren lost some of its sting af­ter Har­ris later ac­knowl­edged she held the same po­si­tion as the for­mer vice pres­i­dent for it to be done vol­un­tar­ily.

Then, when Bi­den and other Demo­cratic can­di­dates turned the ar­rows on Har­ris in the sec­ond de­bate, she looked less pre­pared to de­fend against the in­com­ing.

“She has re­vealed her­self to be pa­per thin,” says Castel­lanos. “She can’t han­dle sec­ond or third level de­bate on an is­sue. She can give Joe Bi­den a good shot but she seems to have a glass jaw when some­body hits back … And when you float around like a but­ter­fly on is­sues, peo­ple won­der if you have the strength nec­es­sary in chal­leng­ing times.”

An aide to a ri­val Demo­cratic cam­paign track­ing Har­ris ob­served that she is at her best in longer-form con­ver­sa­tions or when her lines are neatly pre­pared. She is weak­est, this aide con­tended, in the quick spon­ta­neous mo­ment when an on-the-fly re­sponse is called for, rais­ing a ques­tion of how ef­fec­tive she’d be against Trump’s un­pre­dictable bom­bast.

“We know he is no­holds-barred. He could break out any­thing. She’s not go­ing to be able to play of­fense for an hour and a half against him. She might re­ally strug­gle,” the aide said.

Har­ris’ po­ten­tial still re­mains high among many Demo­cratic donors, who poured $800,000 into her cam­paign ac­count dur­ing re­cent events in Martha’s Vine­yard and the Hamptons, ac­cord­ing to a Demo­cratic con­trib­u­tor in con­tact with her team. At the same time, this con­trib­u­tor, who asked for anonymity to avoid of­fend­ing Har­ris, said, “When you talk with the donor es­tab­lish­ment, there’s not con­fi­dence her cam­paign is get­ting it to­gether.”

“Peo­ple like her – gen­uinely like her – and re­spect her,” the donor said, but “her cam­paign seems plagued by in­de­ci­sion. (Donors are) wor­ried about her vi­a­bil­ity … She can put this to­gether, but she had a tough month.”

A sec­ond fi­nan­cial backer more bullish on Har­ris ac­knowl­edged that “she did not have a great sec­ond de­bate, she knows that, her team knows that.” But he added that there are ad­van­tages to be­ing a fresh-face still earn­ing her sea legs, rather than a front-runner.

“She needs to meet more peo­ple and give a deeper ra­tio­nale for why her,” the fundraiser said.

In con­ver­sa­tions with both Democrats and Repub­li­cans, she’s fre­quently men­tioned as an op­ti­mal run­ning mate for Bi­den – a sug­ges­tion that’s be­come a per­pet­ual ir­ri­tant to Har­ris and her aides, who con­tinue to be­lieve they’re po­si­tioned to­ward the top of “a wide open con­test.”

The Har­ris cam­paign re­mains laser-fo­cused on South Carolina, where a re­cent poll puts her in fourth place. Key to suc­cess there sits with African-Amer­i­cans, whose long fa­mil­iar­ity with Bi­den has an­chored his lead. A re­cent Pew sur­vey found Har­ris at­tract­ing just 10 per­cent of the black vote na­tion­wide. On the up­side: a plu­ral­ity of those vot­ers re­main un­de­cided, show­ing a po­ten­tial op­por­tu­nity for growth in the south­ern states she’ll need to win.

But her cam­paign now ap­pears to re­al­ize that there’s no spring­board into the south with­out a top-tier fin­ish in Iowa, where she re­cently com­pleted a five-day bus tour, her long­est con­tin­ual visit to any state yet. On Wed­nes­day, Har­ris opened her sev­enth of­fice in Iowa, which a cam­paign aide de­scribes as a “a to­tal jump ball.” But like Rom­ney, who strug­gled with a com­mit­ment to the firstin-the-na­tion cau­cus state, Har­ris has had a hot-and-cold re­la­tion­ship with Iowa.

MADDIE MCGARVEY NYT

Hav­ing slid back to fourth place in most pres­i­den­tial primary polls, Sen. Ka­mala Har­ris, D-Calif., is fac­ing a core ques­tion about her po­lit­i­cal iden­tity that may prove cru­cial to res­ur­rect­ing her un­even path to­ward the Demo­cratic Party nom­i­na­tion.

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