The upsides of California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris' political ambitions have been apparent as she's climbed in politics: She charms an audience like few candidates do, speaks knowledgeably about criminal justice-related issues and stays relentlessly on message.
The downside has been a concern that despite her desire for higher office she hasn't broadened her portfolio beyond familiar legal territory, somewhat squandering her front-runner advantages as she seeks a U.S. Senate seat this November.
Hints of both were apparent Sunday as Harris met with supporters at the Los Angeles headquarters of the Building and Construction Trades Council, an organized labor group that has endorsed her bid to replace the retiring Barbara Boxer.
Within seconds of hitting the stage, she had her audience nodding and applauding, even when she unspooled standard Democratic positions on issues such as the environment, education and equal rights.
But repeatedly, in her remarks and in answers to supporters' questions, she fell back on comfortable ground that represents her past and present and not her desired future, delivering some of the same remarks she has repeatedly made during criminal justice speeches.
The absence of a new, Senate-focused approach came up almost inadvertently when a supporter asked what she'd advise President Obama on Islamic State — essentially the role of many senators.
"I don't think I'm in any position to advise President Obama.… He knows more than any of us in this room," she said. The crowd laughed, but the comment underscored her lack of federal experience.
As her campaign seeks to establish a more invigorated public presence with five months to go before the Senate primary, Harris remains a candidate under construction, demonstrating glimmers of the star many in her party hope she will be and, as well, of the uncertain presence some fear she is. Overall, she exuded Sunday the sense of a candidate trying hard to please as many people as possible.
The event was meant to marshal support for her campaign both on the ground in Los Angeles, where she has worked hard to be known despite her Northern California background, and at the state party's convention next month. Harris did not mention her Democratic challenger, Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Orange County, until asked after the session to respond to a recent Sanchez comment that was taken as critical of Muslims. ("This is a climate that is ripe for scapegoats, and leaders don't scapegoat," Harris said.)
If Sanchez has gained most of her campaign attention for remarks seen as insulting to groups of voters, she has begun to pound the argument that Harris lacks sufficient grounding in national issues — a strategy that has been expected to force Harris to bolster her credentials.
Yet at her event Sunday, Harris' most obvious theme was that she is a candidate who can break through the "false choice" put forth by other politicians. The false choice argument, a common one for candidates aiming at a broad swath of the electorate, has the advantage of damning extremists on both sides and setting up oneself as a reasonable alternative, without in many cases having to take a firm position.
On crime, she said in an iteration she has long used, the false choice was that one is either "soft on crime or tough on crime, instead of being smart on crime." The same was true, she said later, when it came to combating threats abroad.
On guns, she said she would "like to see Congress stop suggesting there's a false choice either in favor of the 2nd Amendment or in favor of taking guns from people's hands. That is ridiculous. I support the 2nd Amendment. I also support reasonable gun safety laws."
The danger of the false choice strategy is that it can leave a candidate looking a bit waffly, as Harris did when she spoke of climate change.
"Climate change is real and it is man-made. And the fact that there are folk that are in D.C. that are denying the signs is to our collective peril," she said. "We have got to be serious about this issue."
But in the next moment she seemed intent on tamping down any notion that she was a wacky environmentalist. "I care about the environment not because I have a particular desire to hug a tree," she said. "I have a very strong desire to hug a healthy baby and this is a public health issue as much as it is anything else."
The Senate race to this point has been largely off the public radar. Harris has spent much of her time raising money privately. That backfired somewhat when recent campaign reports showed that she'd already spent a huge portion of money meant for the campaign stretch, in part for expensive hotels and flights. (Asked Sunday about those reports, Harris said that the campaign has "restructured and reduced expenses.")
The invisibility of her campaign has led some in her own party to wonder whether Harris had stalled as a candidate. Yet there were moments Sunday that showed some fire within.
Asked by a reporter about her refusal to analyze Obama's foreign policy moves, she ticked off her views in a far more concise way than she had before the audience: build an international coalition, keep American troops out of Iraq and Syria, deploy special forces as the administration has.
And despite refusing to offer her views on background checks for ammunition — a matter that has been targeted by legislative Democrats and is the subject of a proposed initiative led by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom — she got off a refreshingly blunt zinger on the subject of guns. "If you need an assault weapon to go hunting, you need to go back to hunting school," she said.
Harris expressed confidence in her campaign.
"2016 has just begun," she said. "And we're in it to win it, as the saying goes."