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Analysis:: Kamala Harris, known for caution, finds a risky move pays off against Joe Biden

California Sen. Kamala Harris has sharp words for former Vice President Joe Biden on the issue of busing during the debate Thursday.  

For weeks, supporters of Sen. Kamala Harris had pointed to the first Democratic debate as the opportunity to break out of her campaign doldrums.

What no one said — and few would have predicted — was that she would do so by taking on the candidate at center stage, former Vice President Joe Biden, upbraiding him for his opposition to busing for school integration and his nostalgic reminiscences about his relationships with segregationist senators early in his career.

“I do not believe you are a racist,” Harris began, turning to face Biden. But, she added, “it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.

“And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”

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Biden, sputtering in response, declared Harris’ accusation “a mischaracterization of my position across the board.” He rattled off civil rights measures he had supported in his long career as a senator and tried to defend his opposition to busing during the 1970s and 1980s.

“I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education,” he said, reprising the states’-rights position that he, as a senator from a border state with a history of segregation, had taken decades earlier.

Harris shot back: “That’s where the federal government must step in, that’s why we have the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act … because there are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people.”

The ambush seemed carefully planned. Harris’ campaign aides were armed with photos of the candidate as a little girl, which they tweeted out moments after the clash. It was a surprising risk for Harris, a candidate often described as cautious to a fault. But it provided the capstone for a debate performance that showcased her strengths.

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One of the chief applause lines in Harris’ stump speech has been her pledge to “prosecute the case against four more years of Donald Trump,” as she put it in her closing statement Thursday night.

Harris gained national attention over the last couple of years by virtue of her prosecutor’s instinct and the verbal dexterity that she displayed cross-examining administration officials in Senate hearings. Her willingness to confront Biden — and ability to throw him off balance — could remind many Democrats of what they hope she could do to Trump in a general election.

And the fact that the clash turned on an issue of race highlighted her status as the only black candidate on Thursday’s stage, an important point not only for many African Americans but also for white voters who want the party to stand for diversity.

The confrontation provided “one of the most, if not the most, powerful moments of the day,” said James P. Manley, a longtime Democratic strategist and former senior Senate aide who is not working for any of the candidates. “It was incredibly effective, and I’m confident she’s going to get a boost out of it.

“This is clearly an issue that’s not going to go away any time soon, especially when he invokes states’ rights,” Manley added, referring to Biden. “He still has to do a better job of demonstrating that the Senate has changed and the world has changed, and that he understands.”

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Biden’s deputy campaign manager, Kate Bedingfield, told reporters afterward that his campaign was “satisfied with the outcome of the debate.”

“He’s the front-runner. People were going to take swings at him, trying to create a moment, trying to score points. It’s a debate. We understand that,” she said. “He listened respectfully. She told her story very powerfully. But he was clear that he was not going to engage.”

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The exchange did not hurt Biden’s standing, she insisted. “I think people saw him listening intently and honestly to a very powerful story from Sen. Harris.”

Whether that is so won’t be known for several days as pollsters gauge voter reaction. But unlike general elections, in which debates seldom have a lasting effect on candidate standings, primaries can often feature rapid ups and downs.

None of the other candidates in either of the debate’s two nights went after Biden in any sustained way. Harris’ decision to do so could backfire: With a multi-candidate field, voters sometimes respond to attacks by turning away from both the attacker and the target and moving toward a neutral party, longtime Democratic strategist Bill Carrick said.

“Are there risks involved? Of course there are,” he said. “But she has to take a risk. She’s not going to win if she doesn’t.”

Indeed, the move to go on offense came at a crucial point for Harris. She entered the 2020 race with a roar, drawing a 20,000-plus crowd at her kickoff rally in Oakland and garnering flattering media attention. But as the campaign progressed, Harris’ bid has not. She has been mired in the single digits in recent polls, stuck in fourth place even in her home state.

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At the same time, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has captured the buzz among the progressive left, while Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., has wowed coastal donors who make up the core of Harris’ fundraising base.

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A central problem for Harris has been Biden’s strength among black voters, nationally and in states with early primaries, notably South Carolina. That support has provided a major part of the former vice president’s lead in polls throughout the spring. It also has blocked Harris’ path, which depends on winning over those same voters.

Until Thursday, some in Harris’ camp seemed content to wait for Biden to lose altitude on his own rather than try to play an active role in bringing him down.

The shift to a more aggressive path came after Harris spent days preparing for the debate, first in Washington and then in Miami. She arrived in Florida on Sunday and spent three days largely in debate prep. Thursday, a campaign aide said, she took a spin class to clear her head.

Harris’ advisors had built up the debate as a potential turning point — raising expectations to a degree that worried some in her campaign.

“Get ready for @KamalaHarris to dominate the stage as she makes her case to be the next POTUS in the upcoming democratic debate,” the senator’s sister and advisor Maya Harris wrote on Twitter two weeks ago.

The back-and-forth between Harris and Biden definitely dominated attention. The two took more speaking time than any of the other candidates, and Harris’ name quickly became the top search term Thursday evening on Google.

As the candidate and her top advisors took a victory lap through the post-debate spin room, Harris made clear passivity would not win the race.

“This election will be given to no one,” she said to NBC. “She who wins will have to earn it.”

Lauter reported from Washington and Mason from Miami. Times staff writers Noah Bierman and Caroline S. Engelmayer in Washington contributed to this report.


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