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Will the Third Democratic Debate Give Kamala Harris Renewed Momentum?

September 12, 2019, 6:42 PM UTC

The chanting echoing throughout the Democratic National Committee’s summer confab was inescapable.

“She’s smart, she’s strong, with Kamala you can’t go wrong,” said the chorus from more than two-dozen diverse supporters of California senator and presidential candidate Kamala Harris that rang inside a San Francisco hotel last month.

Harris, the self-described “progressive prosecutor,” later told them and others during a speech that this race is a marathon, as the United States is at an inflection point in need of a prosecutor to go after President Donald Trump’s record.

“We know, it’s time to turn the page,” she said. “To do that, I believe we must have the ability to successfully prosecute the case against four more years of Donald Trump, and it’ll take a prosecutor to do that.”

However, with the third presidential debate Thursday in Houston, Harris now has to recapture the momentum to keep pace with her rivals. This important period comes after Harris had the biggest campaign launch of any Democratic candidate this year, to the biggest moment of this debate season using her personal experiences as a child to stun frontrunner and former Vice President Joe Biden’s past stances on school integration and busing.

But after reaching double digits and as high as second place in most polls, Harris is eager to have a strong showing after seeing her polling numbers cut in half with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren moving ahead, leaving her solidly in fourth place among the top 10 candidates.

And, with the first presidential primary in Iowa nearly five months away, has Harris already peaked? While the themes for Sanders and Warren include battling political, economic, and big corporation-favoring systems in Washington they believe stymies the working class, Harris’ key views slightly differ. Her messages seem to rely on her legal background to “prosecute” Trump as well as talking points about issues that “wakes people up in the middle of the night,” and speaking for the “voices of America.”

Is that enough for Harris to win, or even get back into the top three?

“This isn’t a make or break moment,” said Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist and former executive director of the New York State Democratic party. “As long as she can surpass the threshold to remain on the debate stage and can continue to raise money, she has a chance.”

Smikle adds that while Biden’s support has maintained steady, despite his gaffes, Sanders and Warren have expanded their bases, Harris’ fourth-place position is at a “territory more realistic to where we are in the campaign and name recognition.” 

Despite her showing against Biden, one of Harris’ biggest challenges is that she remains relatively unknown nationally, said Tiffany Cross, a co-founder and managing editor of the BeatDC, a website covering politics, public policy, and people of color.

Harris still has a chance to appeal not only to Democratic voters looking for an “authentic” candidate, Cross said, but also to two of the party’s largest and most consistent voting blocs, women and African-American voters.

In addition to sharpening her focus on policies and plans including health care, climate change, and criminal justice reform, Cross believes that Harris should tell more of her background as a child of Jamaican and Indian immigrants. 

“A lot of voters still don’t know her. There are still too many adversarial voices defining her,” Cross said. “(Harris) has to tell more about her working-class story growing up, which was a struggle, and a story most people can relate to.

“She’s got to work on telling that narrative,” Cross continued. “Voters may like what they hear.”

Brian Sobel, a San Francisco Bay Area political analyst for more than two decades who’s also seen Harris’ rise in politics since she was a district attorney in San Francisco, agrees.

“There’s something that’s not connecting with people, and it may be that she intimidates people, but that’s not her fault. [Harris] may come across as very tough and unforgiving, and I think that might be in the mix here,” Sobel said. “I don’t think voters appreciate all that she brings to the presidential race by her often strident demeanor. She has to find a tricky middle ground.” 

While Harris had her shining moment against Biden, she seemed to be caught off guard when longshot Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard said she was “deeply concerned” about Harris’ prosecutorial record as California attorney general.

Gabbard claimed that Harris put more than 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations, blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row “until the courts forced her to do so” and kept people in prison beyond their sentences.

Harris defended her record as a top prosecutor, and expert on criminal justice reform she said was widely praised. But Gabbard’s move might have an impact with voters.

Smikle said there was already an undercurrent of concern about Harris’ role as a prosecutor, and Gabbard brought them to light in an “equally masterful way,” similar to when Harris went after Biden during the first debate in June.

Cross said Gabbard’s critical comments had a short shelf life because Harris quickly dismissed them in addition to a rapidly moving news cycle. Yet, Harris needs to be more prepared if her prosecutorial record resurfaces during Thursday’s debate.

“I don’t know if that hurt her, but it could if Biden brings that up on the stage tonight, it could be problematic because that narrative is out there and she hasn’t fully addressed it,” Cross said. 

Although it may appear to be a three-way contest, Harris and the other candidates still have some time to persuade voters, said Daniella Gibbs Léger, executive vice president for communications and strategy at American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based political think tank.

“Each candidate has to show that you’re not just only a positive, aspirational vision, but that you can somehow restore some hope to the American people seemingly exhausted by this current administration and cynical about Washington’s ability to get anything done,” she said.

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