A couple years after being elected attorney general of California a decade ago, Kamala Harris was sitting in San Francisco with a handful of aides when one speculated about her becoming president someday.
The room fell silent, and the half-dozen staffers turned to the Democratic up-and-comer to see how she would react. Harris was already being discussed for bigger roles on the national stage.
“I would never want to be president,” Harris said, according to a person in the room, who recalled that she dismissed the highest office in the land as “a terrible job.”
And then, with impeccable timing, Harris delivered the punchline.
“Now,” she said, pausing briefly. “Vice president? That doesn’t sound so bad.”
After Harris’ primary bid last year — a grueling and mostly joyless exercise carried out by the self-described joyful warrior — campaigning to be the No. 2 has suited Harris just fine. On Wednesday night, she’ll square off against Vice President Mike Pence in perhaps the biggest moment of the campaign for her.
Joe Biden’s selection of Harris has excited Democrats. She’s helped him raise money at a record clip. She is Biden’s highest-profile surrogate to swing-state cities like Milwaukee, Detroit and Philadelphia, with a particular focus on courting voters of color, including African Americans and Latinos.
Harris appears solo and alongside Biden in TV ads, a rarity for a VP contender, and stars in digital videos pumped out by the campaign. She’s become the 77-year-old nominee’s emissary to pop culture, making appearances with musical icons, sitting for podcasts geared toward non-political audiences and drawing millions of views for brief videos of her stepping off the plane in Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers.
The verdict: Harris, with a few exceptions, has hit her marks.
But circumstances so far — namely, Biden’s avoid-the spotlight campaign strategy coupled with the coronavirus — have conspired to make Harris the least visible vice-presidential contender in recent memory. That has frustrated some fans and allies who want to see more of her and believe it would help the ticket.
In another year, in another campaign, Harris would be headlining rallies covered by a horde of news reporters. Instead, she is often beamed in to supporters and donors from a makeshift TV studio the campaign built at her alma mater, Howard University in Washington.
When she does venture out on the road, hitting restaurants, florists and barber shops, the events are limited to local reporters and the traveling pool of journalists who must fly commercial to catch up with the vice-presidential nominee.
Some of her diminished profile is inherent in the role of No. 2. And to be certain, she isn’t alone on the ticket in laying low. Biden himself has kept a limited public schedule, in part because of the coronavirus, but also because he wants voters to render a judgment on Trump’s performance, not his own conduct on the trail.
And if Biden is keeping his head down, Harris has to duck even lower.
But in interviews, Democrats and people close to Harris said there are opportunities to leverage her appeals as a trailblazing candidate and skillset as a hard-driving prosecutor to round out the picture.
“I know the traditional thinking around vice-presidential picks is you want someone who can excite folks and you want someone who’s not going to cause harm. And I think Sen. Harris has demonstrated that she is not one of these people that you have to worry about — forgive the reference to Sarah Palin — ‘going rogue,’” said Kim Foxx, the state’s attorney for Cook County, Ill., who stressed that she recognizes the challenges of campaigning amid the virus.
“But it is all upside with her,” Foxx added. “So, my hope certainly will be, in these closing days of the campaign, that they maximize what she brings to this ticket. And not just what her apparel choices are for the day, but really getting deep into the issues in articulating the vision for the country.”
Harris’ biggest opportunity comes in Utah in the debate with Pence.
Harris aides have long viewed the debate as the biggest stage to showcase her slashing style. And Trump’s return to the White House after spending the weekend in the hospital with the virus is seen as a boon to her. She’d planned to make his record the focus of her attacks, aides said, but with the president touting his improved condition, those strikes can be delivered with less hesitation.
“She can be tough on Trump without worrying about it,” said a person close to the campaign. “I believe she’s going to treat Pence as a witness in the prosecution of Donald Trump.”
Harris, for her part, joined with some of those around her in trying to lower what they view as artificially high expectations for her.
“Let me just say something. He’s a good debater. So, I’m so concerned, like I can only disappoint,” she told donors last month.
She might have another turn in the spotlight later this month, at Senate hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court. Harris is on the Judiciary Committee, and her questioning of Barrett is the most anticipated moment of the hearings.
The desire for more Harris is a sign of how far she’s come in a few months. By the time she dropped out of the primary late last year, her favorability rating hovered in the low-to-mid 30s. She helped set the tone for her political comeback before Biden picked her to be his VP. Over the summer, Harris bounced back by becoming one of the most prominent politicians to back police reform in Washington, carrying legislation and appearing at protests as the nation confronted a reckoning on race.
Though she was the early frontrunner for the VP post, some Biden allies and Democrats in her home state warned the campaign that she would struggle to be a team player, even as her advisers argued it would go against her interests not to.
Harris has worked hard to overcome those perceptions, and Biden’s campaign has labored to stamp out any signs of drama around the candidate.
Once back on the campaign trail, Harris has been careful about discussing her role, even in private conversations. But before her travel schedule picked up, she shared impressions with friends and donors about the lighter road schedule than she had in the primary, expressing relief and suggesting it’s given her more time to prepare.
In recent weeks, her average favorability has climbed into the mid-40s, topping out at 50 percent in a CNN poll released Tuesday.
While Harris has largely avoided the scrutiny she faced in her own campaign, particularly around her own record, she hasn’t entirely avoided hiccups. She’s been criticized for prioritizing local interviews and non-political outlets over questions from traveling press.
Her refusal to say whether she would take an approved Covid-19 vaccine ahead of the election — pointing to her distrust in Trump and the need for assurances from health experts — exposed the ticket to criticism that they were rooting against a potential treatment for the virus.
“Well, I think that’s going to be an issue for all of us,” Harris told CNN when she was asked whether she would receive a vaccine before the election.
Biden later stepped in to clean up Harris’ remarks.
In another exchange, Harris was tripped up by questions that came after she and Biden announced support for a national mask mandate. She said they merely supported a standard. Biden later came back and said the president’s authority to impose a mask mandate was unclear and also used the “standard” language himself.
And Harris equivocated when asked about expanding the Supreme Court, an idea she previously was open to. Biden said during the primary he opposed adding justices to the court, but now refuses to give an answer on it, contending anything he says will serve as a distraction.
But by all accounts, Harris has managed so far to allay the concerns of naysayers when she emerged as a favorite for Biden’s second-in-command: that she would overshadow Biden.
“Biden is leading,” said one donor to the campaign, “and she’s enforcing the message.”
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