After dazzling debut, Kamala Harris falls from top of presidential pack

Sen. Kamala Harris returns to the Bay Area for the weekend's state Democratic convention, joined by 13 of her presidential rivals.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

When Kamala Harris launched her presidential bid four months ago, the stars all seemed to align.

She drew a crowd of roughly 20,000 to a lavish Oakland rally. She raised $1.5 million in just 24 hours. She boasted a string of endorsements from California politicians.

But as she returns to the Bay Area this weekend for the annual state Democratic Party convention — along with 13 other candidates eager to fight on her home turf — Harris no longer dazzles quite so much.


Rather, there is a prevalent sense that for all her seeming potential, California’s charismatic U.S. senator has fallen short of expectations.

The disappointment, observers say, stems in part from Harris’ failure to present a compelling case for her candidacy beyond her background as a prosecutor, her buoyant personality and a deep contempt — shared by others in the contest — for President Trump.

“You don’t get elected because you’re a list of qualities,” said Gil Duran, a former Harris advisor who is now the opinion editor of the Sacramento Bee. “What’s the big idea she’s carrying? That’s what she’s trying to figure out. She’s having trouble figuring out what she represents.”

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Other candidates have forged past Harris.

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — both well-defined personalities — have staked their place as front-runners in the crowded contest. Upstart Pete Buttigieg, the brainy young mayor of South Bend, Ind., has garnered buzz and big bucks from some of California’s major political donors. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has won praise for her soup-to-nuts sheaf of liberal policy proposals.

Backers say Harris’ slow-and-steady approach is the right one for this early stage of the campaign, arguing that consistency on the trail and fundraising matter more than catchy sound bites or viral moments.


“I don’t think anyone ever thought she would get in the race and blow away the field and be a front-runner from January 2019 through election day,” said Brian Brokaw, who managed Harris’ two successful runs for state attorney general. “She needs to stay in the upper tier, which I think she is. Stay in striking position and you outlast everybody.”

Harris’ 2016 election to the Senate coincided with Trump’s unexpected victory, and she arrived in Washington as a fierce adversary of the polarizing president. Her pugnacious grilling of Atty. Gens. Jeff Sessions and William Barr, among others, thrilled fellow Democrats.

But she has largely failed to replicate those compelling performances while campaigning. Instead, her equivocations have often overshadowed efforts to excite partisan passions.

In one of her first national campaign appearances, at a CNN town hall, she offhandedly backed eliminating the country’s private health insurance system. Months later, she is still trying to explain her position. (She said that her support for “Medicare for all” meant eliminating healthcare bureaucracy, not doing away with private insurance.)

During another televised town hall, Harris said she was open to a “conversation” about letting incarcerated violent felons vote, only to state the next day she would not support that right for the most serious offenders.

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After touting her get-tough initiative on child truancy throughout much of her career — a centerpiece of her focus on protecting youth — she more recently pulled back, saying she regretted the “unintended consequence” that some parents went to jail.

What we’ve learned so far is that she’s great at asking questions but timid at answering them. She’s going to have to correct that to navigate this process.

— Democratic strategist David Axelrod

The hedging revived one of the criticisms that has followed Harris throughout her public life, the suggestion she is politically timid and overly cautious. As attorney general, she was notably muted on some of the state’s most fraught issues, such as police use of force and ballot initiatives to change California’s sentencing laws.

That tension has spilled into her presidential campaign, where some aides advocate a more assertively progressive stance to court left-leaning activists while others prefer that Harris hug the middle to better position herself for a general election.

The candidate herself is ambivalent, said one strategist familiar with the campaign’s internal dynamic, who described part of the conflict as “Kamala vs. Kamala.”

David Axelrod, who twice helped navigate Barack Obama to the White House, said that caution “can be a very, very perilous thing in a presidential campaign, where that can often translate into exceedingly political and calculated.”

Defenders — who see sexism at play — say Harris’ perceived skittishness was a result of competing pressures: conservative law enforcement officials on one side, who were naturally suspicious of a mixed-race woman from San Francisco, and left-leaning criminal justice reform advocates on the other. They note she was an early and ardent advocate of impeaching Trump, leaping out in front of many rivals.

“The whole cautious thing, it makes me bristle a little bit,” said Brokaw, who remains an informal Harris advisor. “I honestly think that is one of her biggest strengths. She is a prosecutor who spent years in legal settings where every word matters, where you can blow a case with one misspeak. You’re never going to change that about her.”


But standing in a courtroom before judge and jury is different than persuading Democratic primary voters — especially when there are nearly two dozen other candidates also making their arguments.

“She’s a brilliant person, there’s no doubt about that,” Axelrod said. “But what we’ve learned so far is that she’s great at asking questions but timid at answering them. She’s going to have to correct that to navigate this process.”

Of course, fortunes can change quickly, particularly with more than eight months until the first votes are cast.

Polling gives Harris high favorability marks and shows voters are curious to learn more about her. She continues to draw strong turnout in early primary states, and her crisp performance in an MSNBC town hall Tuesday night drew 2.2 million viewers, the second-highest-rated televised candidate forum so far.

Harris will share a spotlight this weekend with many of her rivals as a parade of presidential hopefuls take their turns addressing Democratic activists in downtown San Francisco. One conspicuous exception is Biden, who will be campaigning in Ohio.

It’s a large gathering of White House contestants, but no one in Harris’ camp thought she would lock up California without a fight. (Polling puts Biden and Sanders ahead of her.) The state is simply too big and tantalizing for anyone to ignore.


With 495 delegates awarded on a proportional basis, instead of winner-take-all, California makes it worthwhile for candidates to campaign here to pluck off a few, and at the same time squeeze in some fundraising. In 2007, when another crowd of Democrats was running, 7 of 8 contestants appeared at the convention.

Harris has won three statewide races, but remains a mystery to many at home. Surveys show nearly a quarter of California voters have no opinion of her job performance, suggesting they know little, if anything, about the state’s junior U.S. senator.

That is not unusual, said pollster Mark DiCamillo.

“You’re talking about 19 million registered voters in California, and for 19 million people to be universally aware of something you have to practically hit them over the head,” said DiCamillo, who has spent decades sampling voter attitudes in the state. “It’s not unusual for 15, 20, 30% of Californians to just be tuned out of politics.”

Saturday’s appearance at the Moscone Convention Center will mark one of Harris’ few public campaign stops in California since she joined the race. On Thursday, in the lead-up to the gathering, Harris rolled out nearly three dozen more state legislative endorsements.

Being home offers one distinct privilege: When Democrats convene Saturday morning, Harris will be the first of the candidates to address the 3,400 party faithful, in a prime spot before the lunch hour.

Mason reported from Los Angeles and Barabak from San Francisco. Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.