Why Kamala Harris needs to recapture that magic in Thursday’s debate

Kamala Harris greets voters after a town hall in Londonderry, N.H., on Sept. 6.
(Melanie Mason / Los Angeles Times)

Jan Sweetland was searching for a female Democrat to support for president and thought she’d found the one in Kamala Harris. She was so entranced at a May campaign event that her husband, Dennis, leaned over with an observation: “This is your woman.”

Sweetland, a 72-year-old retiree from Bedford, N.H, agreed and approached campaign organizers that day with an offer to volunteer.

For the record:

8:22 a.m. Sept. 10, 2019An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect first name for Tim Bottaro.

The campaign never followed up, and by midsummer Harris’ glow had dimmed considerably. The Sweetlands were dismayed by Harris’ uneven appearances on the campaign trail and disenchanted by her wan performance in Democrats’ July debate.


“She seemed to be not in control,” said Dennis, 72, who backs South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

In the nearly eight months since she formally launched her White House bid, California’s U.S. senator has fallen into a familiar pattern. Exhilarating highs — her artfully executed announcement, her Senate grilling of attorney general nominee William Barr, her standout performance in June’s first presidential debate — followed by extended doldrums that stalled her momentum and erased those gains.

At the same time, her campaign has had to adjust its strategy to account for the strength of rivals Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, placing greater emphasis on the Iowa caucuses and forcing Harris to scramble against opponents with a considerable head start courting activists and snapping up the state’s top political talent.

Now mired well back in the crowded pack, Harris faces intense pressure for a standout performance in Thursday’s debate and, beyond that, greater facility at the up-close style of engaging voters that is worlds away from the TV-driven, media-centric campaigns she has grown accustomed to in California.

In a two-day swing through New Hampshire last weekend, Harris struck a determined — if slightly exasperated — posture as she repeatedly fielded questions about her difficult summer.

“Everybody else and the pundits can ride polls. I’m not on that roller coaster,” she told reporters at the state Democratic Party convention Saturday in Manchester. “I am working hard. We are steady. I don’t get high with the polls, I don’t get low with the polls.”

Sen. Kamala Harris at the New Hampshire state Democratic Party convention Sept. 7.
(Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press)

As the senator travels the country, the electric persona on display in congressional hearings and June’s debate stage has yet to translate into the type of consistently buzzy performance that captivates audiences or spreads virally by word of mouth.


(Unfortunately for her, Harris’ stop Friday in Londonderry drew the sort of notice she could do without: Video of the candidate laughing and stating “well said” after a questioner called Trump “mentally retarded” made the rounds on social media, forcing Harris to apologize after saying she had not heard that part of the question.)

The peaks and valleys of Harris’ campaign can perhaps best be charted by her showing in the first two debates.

After tumbling from the heights that followed her January announcement, the senator roared back in June with a commanding performance; the highlight was a dramatic confrontation with Biden over his 1970s-era opposition to school busing. Her fundraising, which had slowed to a trickle, soared and her standing in state and national polling surged.

The school bus ride was less than three miles from one side of Berkeley to the other, but from 1969 to 1973 it transported Carole Porter to an entirely different world.

June 30, 2019

But the energy behind her campaign slowly dissipated, like a depleted sugar high. In July’s debate, it was Harris who was on the defensive when Biden, abetted by Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, attacked her record as California’s attorney general. Her response, angry and peevish, played to suggestions that Harris is better demanding answers than responding to questions.

“Man, what happened between the first and second debate?” asked Tim Bottaro, 60, an attorney and Democratic activist from Sioux City, Iowa, who considered backing Harris before throwing his support to Buttigieg.

“She had that look like Biden did” in the first debate, Bottaro said, “that deer-in-headlights look. I’m sitting there thinking, ‘You weren’t prepared for this?’”


As she struggles for traction, Harris is having to recalibrate her strategy.

Early on, her campaign placed little emphasis on Iowa and New Hampshire, which cast the first presidential votes in early February. Her strategists envisioned Harris prevailing in Nevada’s caucuses, which come next, then notching a major victory in South Carolina, where the majority of Democratic voters are African American and, it was presumed, favorably disposed to Harris’ bid to become America’s first black woman president.

A win in South Carolina, it was thought, would slingshot Harris into Super Tuesday — a 14-state coast-to-coast extravaganza with California as its centerpiece — and a sweep of Southern states like Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi that also boast large black voting populations. (A similar march across the South helped deliver the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton and, before that, Barack Obama.)

But the durability of Massachusetts’ Sen. Warren and former Vice President Biden’s strong support among African Americans — particularly in South Carolina — have undermined Harris’ strategy. If either is to be stopped or slowed, it will almost certainly have to take place in Iowa or New Hampshire.

You don’t get [commitments] by riding into town, holding an event, taking some questions and then jump on the bus and head to the next stop.

— Iowa Democratic strategist David Nagle

Harris’ pivot toward Iowa became evident in recent weeks as the campaign went on a hiring binge. She now has 65 full-time paid staffers, which is still fewer than other candidates.

Her five-day August bus trip through Iowa, the first extended visit of her presidential campaign, drew respectable crowds. And those who have enjoyed one-on-one time say Harris can be captivating.

“She burns a hole through your eyeballs,” said Penny Rosfjord, 53, an uncommitted Democratic activist who works in the cardiovascular department at a Sioux City hospital. “She’s not looking around the room. You’re the only one she’s talking to.”


Iowans have high expectations for candidate courtship, however, and some say Harris has fallen short; one Democratic strategist who is helping out several candidates scoffed at her “rock star” tour bus, suggesting a modest Winnebago was more suited to Iowa, and others criticized her outreach efforts as superficial and often lacking follow-through.

“It’s the meeting after the meeting that’s more important,” said David Nagle, a former Iowa congressman and state Democratic Party chairman who has doled out advice to several 2020 candidates. “You don’t get [commitments] by riding into town, holding an event, taking some questions and then jump on the bus and head to the next stop.”

Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris
Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris outside the New Hampshire Democratic Party Convention.
(Scott Eisen / Getty Images)

In New Hampshire, Harris has been persistently dogged by questions regarding how seriously she plans to compete. The state, which holds the first primary eight days after Iowa’s caucuses, has never figured strongly in her presidential strategy.

Over the weekend she received largely positive reviews and displayed a concerted effort to forge a greater personal connection, lingering for selfies at a town hall and staying hours past her convention speech in Manchester to host private meetings. Still, many reserved judgment.

Maureen Lynch, who gave her age as 50-something, had only good things to say about the senator’s policies, sense of humor and listening skills. But the closest the Londonderry resident, who is between jobs, came to committing was to say Harris was “definitely in my top five.”


Harris’ candidacy has been further hampered by a muddled campaign message that has left her ill-defined in the minds of voters. unlike others in the race — Warren and Bernie Sanders on the left, Biden hugging the middle — Harris has failed to stake clear-cut ideological ground.

She has vacillated, most notably, on healthcare, endorsing the “Medicare for all” legislation proposed by Sen. Sanders of Vermont and supported by Warren, before backing off and coming up with a proposal that would preserve private health insurance for those who prefer their coverage.

She has alternately defended and backed away from her record as a prosecutor, which antagonizes some in the party’s more liberal wing, and gone further left than many opponents on addressing climate change — which could force dramatic lifestyle changes — while insisting she is not running for president to transform America.

Police shootings and Black Lives Matter pulled Kamala Harris in opposite directions in 2016, as a black woman and California’s then-attorney general.

Aug. 6, 2019

Patrick Vale, a 28-year-old school administrator from Boston, said Harris has all the attributes of a successful candidate: relative youth, energy, a fresh face. But he’s struggled to find the core thesis of her campaign.

“You check all the boxes, but why exactly are you running for president? What exactly motivates you?” said Vale, who’s leaning toward Warren because of her clear convictions. “With Harris, I haven’t felt that as much.”

He was in Manchester on a mild and cloudy Saturday as a parade of Democratic hopefuls made their pitch to party activists gathered in a downtown arena. So, too, was Jan Sweetland, the Bedford retiree whose offer to help out Harris went unanswered.

She’s since found her presidential candidate: Sweetland is now volunteering for Warren.

Mason reported from Manchester and Barabak from Des Moines. Times staff writer Evan Halper in Manchester contributed to this report.