Front-runners Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris face different hurdles

Lack of formidable opponents is a mixed blessing for Hillary Clinton's and Kamala Harris' political bids

It is one of the oddities of this campaign season: In races for two of the most sought-after political offices in the country, two Democratic women are running virtually unchallenged, their tasks both boosted and complicated by the veneer of inevitability.

Nationally, of course, there is Hillary Rodham Clinton, opening her second try for the party's presidential nomination with a "Hi, everybody!" tour of bakeries and coffee shops and workplaces where voters gather in key electoral states, the better to infuse her effort with the humanity she can have a hard time demonstrating on her own.

And in California there is Kamala Harris, running for a U.S. Senate seat to be vacated by 22-year veteran Barbara Boxer, campaigning fiercely behind the scenes and in the fundraising salons but virtually invisible to the voters who will determine her fate.

If there are similarities between the two — neither at this point has a popular or well-financed opponent, though that could change, particularly in California — there are vast differences as well.

Clinton may be the best-known woman in the world — given her tortured tenure as first lady to the nation's most popular politician, Bill Clinton; her two New York elections to the Senate; her term as secretary of state.

Harris is in her second term as attorney general of California, which would be a bigger deal in any state other than California, which prefers its elected officials to be neither seen nor heard. After spending millions on her campaigns — in no small part to smooth the path for the present one — she in some ways remains a mystery, with 60% of the state's voters lacking an impression of her in a February USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.

Driving their strategic moves is what each woman must prove.

For Clinton, the imperative is not necessarily to immediately amass giant sums but to prove that this campaign will be better than the last, that her painful loss to Barack Obama in 2008 infused her with a political humility that will turn loss into victory in 2016. That can be harder to do when there is, as yet, no real competition.

Thus she entered the race via a video that featured voters in the front seat and herself in the far, far back. She traveled to Iowa — in a van that she likened to Scooby Doo's, although the resemblance was imaginary — and went out of her way to remind her small audiences that she was there to learn from them, not the other way around.

She repeated it all in New Hampshire last week.

"At this point in the campaign I have a very strong commitment to listening," she told guests in the living room of a cozy, antiques-filled two-story home in Claremont, N.H. "I think it's a lost art in politics and I'm going to try to single-handedly bring it back so that people will actually have a conversation again about what's going on in your life."

Harris' conversations will have to wait, for her must-do list is different. The illusion of inevitability is her friend, more than it is Clinton's, for it will do more to dissuade others from entering the race.

To be sure, she is also working at a job she just won in November. That job does double duty in pushing her political image.

Last week, for instance, she issued a statement commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide — unlike President Obama, she pointedly used the freighted term, which will not go unnoticed by the significant Armenian community in places like Southern California.

"Today, we honor the memory of the nearly 1.5 million Armenians who were brutally murdered from 1915 to 1923 at the hands of the Ottoman Empire," she wrote. "The Armenian genocide is one of humanity's darkest chapters. We must never forget the atrocities committed against the Armenian people as we remain vigilant in our fight against civil and human rights violations."

She also flew to New York for the global Women in the World conference, where she took part in a panel on cyber exploitation. Yahoo anchor Katie Couric introduced Harris as someone "known for getting very tough and leading your state" on cyber crimes.

Harris described herself as the state's "top cop" — a favorite phrase — and repeated remarks she had made in her only other public appearance of the campaign: a March fundraiser in Washington, D.C., for the Emily's List political group.

"A harm against any one of us is a harm against all of us; a crime against any one of us is a crime against all of us," she told the audience, drawing applause.

It might seem odd that Harris' only public showings so far have been a continent away from the state in which she is running. But her campaign strategists point to her need to raise the big dollars necessary in any California race. (She had $2.2 million on hand at the end of March, the most recent filing.)

"It's still quite a ways off from the June primary and of course as the campaign unfolds she will be holding more public events around the state," said campaign spokesman Brian Brokaw.

"At the same time, in a state as large as California, you have to lay the foundation for a very expensive race. Most of her nights are occupied up and down the state in living rooms, doing fundraisers and lining up endorsements."

Thursday, in fact, was a perfect example of Harris' campaign at the moment. In the afternoon, she was on stage as attorney general, talking about crimes against women.

And that night, she was at a Chelsea club, where 250 young professionals had gathered to hear Harris speak and to give her money for the campaign back home.

cathleen.decker@latimes.com
Twitter: @cathleendecker

For more on California politics, go to latimes.com/decker.

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