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Politics

Successful launch makes Harris a front-runner, but for how long?

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(LAT)

Presidential campaign launches used to be informal affairs. A candidate would stand in front of some reasonably picturesque backdrop, declare that he — it was almost always he — was running, supporters would cheer and off they’d go.

No more.

Today’s launches are tightly choreographed ensembles of video, websites, rallies and interviews, all designed to propel a hopeful candidate to maximum visibility overnight.

Kamala Harris’ effort this week provided a vivid example of success.

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SENATOR FRONT-RUNNER

After first announcing her candidacy last week at a Martin Luther King Day appearance on “Good Morning America,” Harris followed this week with a kickoff rally in Oakland before a crowd that, as Melanie Mason and Mark Barabak wrote, spilled through several city blocks.

The sun shined, the crowd cheered and the rally provided perfect visuals of racial, ethnic and religious diversity for the campaign commercials to come. Within days, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who might have competed with Harris for home-state financial and political backing, announced he would not enter the race.

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Harris followed with a trip to Iowa for a nationally televised CNN town hall. There, her ability to empathize with questioners demonstrated Clintonian campaign skill — that would be Bill Clinton, not Hillary.

The forum drew a record audience for a single-candidate event, CNN reported. Potential voters who until this past month knew little about California’s junior senator got a first impression of a candidate who embodies Democratic beliefs about diversity and who stood up for her beliefs under questioning.

Harris got criticism from Republicans for publicly saying something that some other Democrats try to elide — that Medicare for all would mean eliminating private insurance. But most of the flak she drew came from questioners on the left who accused her of being too tough on crime — a quality that has yet to harm a candidate in a presidential election.

All in all, a candidate couldn’t ask for much more in an opening act. Contrast that with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who launched her campaign at nearly the same time as Harris but to much less effect.

Harris even drew a compliment from President Trump, who said in an interview with the New York Times that she had “the best opening so far.”

A Washington Post poll taken after Harris’ “Good Morning America” appearance but before the Oakland rally asked potential voters to volunteer the name of a Democratic candidate they supported. More than half of Democrats had no preference, the poll found. But of those who did have a favorite, Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden topped the list.

The question now is what the second act will bring. Being a front-runner brings benefits, but also extra challenges, Barabak and Mason wrote.

As veteran Republican strategist Mike Murphy told them: “Now that you’ve gone out and told everybody you’re Superman or Superwoman, you have to start picking up locomotives.”

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Murphy, who headed the super-PAC for Jeb Bush in the last election, knows well how quickly life can sour for a front-runner who starts to slip behind.

RUNNING WHILE FEMALE

This campaign marks the first time ever that the Democratic field has included multiple, serious female candidates. Janet Hook examined the contrasting ways of handling gender issues that Harris, Gillibrand and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have displayed so far.

THE FIELD GETS BIGGER

On Friday, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey made his entry into the race. As Evan Halper wrote, Booker eschews the sometimes angry rhetoric that some other candidates use, pitching his campaign as a quest for unity, optimism and, as he likes to say, “universal love.”

Conventional wisdom holds that Booker and Harris will compete for the support of African American voters in key states such as South Carolina.

But it’s equally likely that many of those voters will hold off on making a choice until they get a sense of whether either of the candidates has a strong shot of winning. As Halper wrote, that was the experience from 2008, in which black voters flocked to then-Sen. Barack Obama’s side only after he proved he could win.

The need to prove that could put more importance once again on the initial contest in the race, the Iowa caucuses, which propelled Obama’s candidacy. It’s not for nothing that each of the candidates so far has made an early trek to Iowa.

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Over the next few weeks, the pace of candidates is likely to quicken. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont will probably join the race later in February. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio has an exploratory trip to Iowa this weekend and is expected to make a decision by early March. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who, like Brown, boasts credibility with Midwestern voters, is also weighing a bid.

And all their plans will be affected by whatever decision Biden makes. The former vice president has been closeted with his family and closest advisors, giving few hints of which way he’ll decide. Aides concede, however, that he can’t delay much longer.

THE INDEPENDENT

Democrats love to worry. This week, they focused much of their angst on a potential independent presidential bid by Howard Schultz, the billionaire former CEO of Starbucks.

The fear among Democratic strategists is not that Schultz could win — in an era of ever-heightened partisanship among voters, the chance of a wealthy third-party candidate successfully tapping into a well of independents is remote. But he could potentially split the anti-Trump vote, delivering key states to the incumbent.

Schultz points to the fact that many voters register as independents to suggest that a “silent majority” exists for a third party. No doubt his advisors’ paychecks depend on telling him that, but everyone else who has studied voters knows it’s rubbish.

Indeed, the single strongest force in politics today is what political scientists call “negative partisanship” — the belief that the other side represents a serious danger. That feeling makes party lines stronger than ever. And the vast majority of people who register as independents actually vote as partisans.

Moreover, the beliefs Schultz espouses — a mix of secular liberalism on social issues and fiscal conservatism on economics — has very little support outside of a few wealthy precincts. The opposite stance — social conservatism coupled with economic populism — has a much bigger following.

All that being said, a well-funded third-party campaign could affect a close race in some key states, and after the experience of 2016, almost anything suffices to keep worried Democrats up at night.

TRUMP’S IMAGINARY FRIENDS

As Eli Stokols and Jennifer Haberkorn wrote, Trump has a proven penchant for making up characters whom he claims as friends. The archetype was a man named Jim. Trump claimed he was a friend who told him he doesn’t go to Paris anymore because of the impact of immigration on the city. No one’s ever been able to find Jim, and White House aides have stopped insisting he’s real.

This week, Trump’s been claiming that many Democrats are secretly prepared to support him in his quest for a border wall. That seems to be a fantasy, as well.

By week’s end, Trump seemed to be admitting he wouldn’t get support in Congress for a wall. In public comments and a new New York Times interview, he returned to the idea of declaring a state of emergency and trying to use it to divert money from other projects to build the wall.

CHANGING THE SUBJECT

Having picked a fight with Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and lost, Trump also seems to want to change the subject.

The next few weeks are likely to see a big buildup toward another summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Trump suggested he’d announce plans for that meeting during Tuesday’s State of the Union speech.

He also strongly hinted he might meet with Xi Jinping to try to settle the continuing trade dispute with China, Stokols reported.

The most likely schedule seems to be a trip to Vietnam in late February to meet with Kim, followed by a stop in China on the way home, White House officials say.

Part of the discussion could also be new Justice Department charges against the Chinese firm Huawei. As Del Wilber wrote, the charges marked a significant escalation of the government’s case against the telecom giant.

ANOTHER REASON TO TRAVEL

Acting Atty. Gen. Mark Whitaker said publicly this week what others have been saying privately: Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation is “close to being completed.” As Chris Megerian wrote, Whitaker’s remark suggests that a report from Mueller on at least some parts of his investigation may be nearing completion.

Whether any report will become public, however, remains very unclear. Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, told Megerian weeks ago that the White House might try to block release of some information.

WAG THE DOG?

Amid everything else, the administration has been ratcheting up tensions with Venezuela, as Tracy Wilkinson reported, by imposing sanctions on the state oil company and recognizing the opposition leader, Juan Guaido, as the country’s rightful president.

Critics of the administration accuse Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has had a major voice in shaping policy toward Venezuela, of trying to foment a coup against the country’s leftist government.

CALIFORNIA’S CLOUT

As Sarah Wire wrote, Californians dominate the new House like never before, in part because of Pelosi’s influence, but also simply because of the huge size of the state’s Democratic delegation.

That hasn’t helped in the state’s fight with the administration over California’s authority to set its own rules on auto emissions. Talks on the issue appear stalled, Anna Phillips wrote. That increases the likelihood of a lengthy battle in court.

The state’s two senators, Harris and Sen. Dianne Feinstein also have a growing fight with the administration over Trump’s nominees to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The California senators will try to use senatorial prerogatives to block the nominations.

Overall, Congress isn’t likely to get much done this year, Haberkorn wrote. The brief bipartisan window for passing legislation seems to be rapidly closing.

BORDER PATROL VACANCIES RISE

Trump wanted to increase the ranks of the nation’s border and immigration agents by 15,000 new positions. And his administration has spent millions of dollars to try to accomplish that. The money has gone largely for naught, as Molly O’Toole wrote — they’ve gotten thousands of vacancies instead. The number of vacancies is actually higher now than when Trump started.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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David.lauter@latimes.com

@davidlauter


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