Kamala Harris won’t have a lot of time to make her mark in Thursday’s Democratic primary debate, where the California senator will be jostling with nine other candidates on stage. But Harris has a proven knack for creating viral moments, drawing off her skills as a former prosecutor and ability to coolly skewer opponents.
Former Vice President Joe Biden and Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the two frontrunners in primary polls, risk finding themselves on the receiving end of those barbs Thursday night.
“It’s going to be difficult for anybody to break out, but I think she has the ability,” said Democratic strategist Katie Merrill, pointing to Harris’ “cool, crisp” communications style. That stands in stark contrast to some of her more rambling Senate colleagues.
“Whether it is in response to, perhaps, a misstep by one of the other leading candidates on the stage, whether it’s a prepared criticism or hit on one of the two frontrunners, I think she has the ability to deliver that,” said Merrill, who advised one of Harris’ primary opponents in the 2010 race for California attorney general.
In the Senate, Harris has attracted national headlines for her grilling of Trump administration officials and nominees, in the no-nonsense style of an attorney cross-examining a witness.
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions famously said at one hearing that her rapid fire questioning was making him “nervous.” A C-SPAN clip of her interrogating Attorney General William Barr over his handling of the Mueller report in May has more than a million views on YouTube.
Harris won’t be facing off with anyone, one-on-one, in this first debate. And she’s not likely to go after her fellow Democrats as aggressively as Trump officials reviled by members of her party. But as with those nationally televised hearings, the biggest success for any candidate in Miami will be delivering the sound byte that gets replayed all over cable news and across social media.
“Each of these folks have about eight minutes so what’s going to matter are the moments,” said Bob Shrum, presidential campaign adviser to Democrats Al Gore and John Kerry.
Hoover Institution Fellow Bill Whalen argued that the easiest way to have one of those moments on Thursday’s crowded debate stage will be to take on the frontrunners, particularly Biden. The leading storyline out of the debate, he predicted, is “what did the other candidates do vis-a-vis Joe Biden?”
The Harris campaign does not believe she needs to attack Biden or Sanders to stand out on Thursday, but that doesn’t mean she won’t seize her opportunities to create a “contrast” with others.
Harris has already shown that she’s willing to go after Biden, albeit politely.
Asked last week about Biden’s controversial remarks about working with segregationists in the Senate, Harris told reporters, “I have a great deal of respect for Vice President Biden ... but to coddle the reputations of segregationists, of people who, if they had their way, I literally would not be standing her as a member of the Untied States Senate, it’s just misinformed and its wrong.”
In past debates, Harris certainly seized the openings presented to her.
A onetime member of the Howard University debate team, Harris drew mixed reviews for her debate performances during the 2010 race for California attorney general and 2016 race for Senate. But in both races, she proved nimble enough to come out on top.
Harris was less polished in her October 2010 attorney general debate with Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, but rarely appeared ruffled. When Cooley defended his decision to collect his local pension on top of an attorney general’s salary, a major faux pas that pundits blamed for his narrow loss, Harris replied with a laugh, “Go for it, Steve. You’ve earned it; there’s no question.”
In the 2016 Senate debate, Harris was well-prepared for Sanchez’s attacks, swatting them down firmly and launching her own pointed critiques in response.
Harris’ unflappable air carries some risks. California political commentators Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine wrote that she came off as “arrogant” and “condescending” in her 2016 debate with Sanchez.
They also ripped her for suggesting Californians needed to “have a conversation” about water policy, a turn of phrase that has drawn criticism on the 2020 campaign trail, as well. Critics will be ready to pounce if Harris plays into the perception, which has dogged her early on, that she waffles on policy issues. That’s “one thing she has not been good at,” said Whalen.
“She has is to answer questions more directly,” said Shrum, who is now the director of the Center for the Political Future at the University of Southern California. “It’s not a time for ‘conversation,’ it’s a time for enunciation of your position.”