Young men in Elizabeth Warren T-shirts gawked and pointed their cameras as Kamala Harris worked the crowd in Iowa. A group wearing black Andrew Yang shirts asked her for a photo.
And on the sidelines of the Democratic Wing Ding Dinner, an Iowa political rite of passage, an older woman trying to find her friend for a selfie with the senator got a little help from Harris, who cranked up the goofy warmth she sometimes radiates on the campaign trail.
“Owen! Where are you?” Harris hollered, gesturing jokingly over the crowd, as the beaming woman instead recorded what was essentially a private campaign ad with an intended audience of Owen. “I’m looking all over the Wing Ding for you. I can’t — Owen? Has anyone seen Owen? I can’t find you anywhere, Owen. I need your help. Caucus for me. I need you in my corner, wherever you are.”
Harris must convert Democratic voters’ curiosity into commitment to win this first caucus state, and she recently crossed Iowa on a five-day bus tour to make the case that she is their best shot to beat President Trump.
Many here like the former prosecutor’s toughness in debates and Senate hearings and think the nation is ready for a woman of color to be president. In person they often found Harris friendly and empathetic. But until now that has not been enough, said many of the more than 30 likely Democratic caucus-goers The Times interviewed over the last week, to make them turn away from the rest of the crowded field and pledge to support her.
“She’s fantastic, but I feel like we have eight to 10 fantastic candidates to vote for,” Kelly Allen, a 47-year-old teachers’ associate from Lockridge, said after seeing Harris speak.
The theme of Harris’ bus tour was what she calls the “3 a.m. agenda” — cutting taxes for the middle class and fixing problems that keep Americans up at night. At rallies, she generally drew bigger cheers for her calls for gun control and for the image she’s cultivated of herself as a Democratic avenger, telling rally-goers at several stops that she wants to “prosecute the case against four more years of Donald Trump.”
Many here are enamored with the idea of seeing her debate Trump.
“In a debate situation, she’ll call him to come to Jesus,” said Lindey Krug, a 42-year-old high school teacher from Fort Dodge, who is considering Harris along with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.
“Trump would have more trouble with her,” said David File, a 68-year-old retiree from Mount Pleasant, who said he was still considering five or six candidates. “Trump is accountable to no one. I think he is just so used to bullying people and making it up as he goes that she will be able to face-to-face pin him down.”
Ken Madden, 70, a retired farmer who lives outside Mount Pleasant, said he couldn’t wait for Harris to tell Trump “to go back to his corner, something Hillary [Clinton] didn’t do.”
“She’s tough, she’s not a starry-eyed liberal — look at her background as a prosecutor,” Madden said. “It appeals to someone like me.”
Traveling the state in a black tour bus adorned with “KAMALA” in colorful letters, the top-tier candidate held rallies in between stops at a farm, a nursing home and a mobile-home park. She toured the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, striding in aviator sunglasses past stalls selling foot-long hot dogs, deep-fried pickledawgs and Cajun cheese on a stick. She wore a red apron to flip patties on a grill.
“I think I can also flip Republicans,” Harris joked.
“We went to the Iowa State Fair!” Harris said later, laughing, in an interview on her bus, as cornfields flashed by. Harris said she liked visiting parts of the state that didn’t have airports but where “there are people who need to be seen, need to be heard.”
“It’s nice to be in one place for five days and really kind of embed and get in.”
Harris also seemed at home at a gun control forum in Des Moines filled with hundreds of activists in red T-shirts, comforting crying survivors of gun violence and then confidently pacing the stage while laying some blame for the massacre targeting Latinos in El Paso at the president’s feet. The suspect’s so-called manifesto spoke of an “invasion” of immigrants, a theme Trump routinely shares.
“People say to me, ‘Did Donald Trump cause those folks to be killed?’ Well, no, of course he didn’t pull the trigger,” she said. “But he’s certainly been tweeting out the ammunition.”
At several stops, Harris casually added, “Dude gotta go,” inspiring one crowd at a packed school atrium in West Des Moines to chant “Dude! Gotta! Go!”
The great struggle for Harris’ campaign now — as with every top Democratic campaign — will be to transform interest and goodwill into actual support as the field thins.
Before she started her bus tour, Harris had 11% support among likely Iowa caucus-goers, trailing the 28% support claimed by former Vice President Joe Biden and the 19% for Warren. That placed her on a level with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Buttigieg, according to a recent Monmouth University poll.
Sue and Bob Dvorsky, an influential pair in the Iowa Democratic Party, are hoping to nudge the great masses of undecideds toward Harris, whom they have endorsed.
“We’re ready. It’s her, it’s now, we’re ready to go,” Sue Dvorsky, the former state party chairwoman, said in an interview at the state fair.
But other voters aren’t there yet. On Monday, after Harris spoke in Burlington about her “Medicare for all” plan, a campaign surrogate noted that the caucuses were 175 days away and urged the crowd of about 100 to sign cards declaring their intent to back her. But as voters filed out, almost everyone ignored the cards sitting on a table by the exit.
“Part of me is just waiting to see who begins to step out in the lead,” said Dwight Grosvenor, a 69-year-old retired United Methodist pastor who attended Harris’ event at a school in Fort Dodge. “I know that’s not helping her get ahead — or anybody.”
Several Iowans suggested that they had sensed a lack of fire or inspiration from the senator that would tip their support toward her.
Alex Wiese, a 29-year-old Iowa City teacher, said he liked Harris but “she comes off slightly like that practiced politician.” He wanted to see a “breakout moment of passion.” After hearing her stump speech at the fair, he was more interested: “It’s great to have a fighter when you’re going after a bully.”
“People have said she’s cold on TV,” but it’s not true, Iran Carlos, a 21-year-old Buena Vista University student, said after meeting the senator.
Carlos — a DACA recipient whose parents brought her from Mexico into the U.S. illegally when she was 9 months old — had gotten an up-close look at the charisma Harris often displays in one-on-one encounters with voters.
Carlos greeted the senator at a Mexican restaurant in Storm Lake but soon began crying. After the recent mass deportations of workers in Mississippi, she worried that something might happen to her parents.
After Harris made her rounds inside the restaurant, shaking hands with patrons, she circled back to Carlos, leaned in close, fixed her eyes on her — and then lifted her own chin, straightened her spine, and threw her shoulders back as she instructed the student to do the same.
“And always remember you belong,” Harris told Carlos. “You hear it? I’m a United States senator telling you that. And a serious candidate for president of the United States telling you that. So what are you going to do?”
“Stay strong,” Carlos responded softly.
“And what are you going to remember?” Harris waited a beat. “You belong. OK? Yeah?”
Carlos smiled. “Yeah.”
So if she could vote, would Carlos support Harris?
“There’s a couple I have my eye on,” Carlos, a political science major who previously volunteered with the Warren campaign, said in an interview. “She may be fierce, and I like her, but I want to see where it goes.”