Kamala Harris

Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP Photo

2020

How Kamala Harris Went From ‘Female Obama’ to Fifth Place

She entered the 2020 presidential race with promise and charisma, but is now sliding perilously close to irrelevance. What went wrong? And is it too late for her to reverse course?

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Nine years ago, Kamala Harris was behind in her race for California attorney general, trailing by a handful of percentage points to Steve Cooley, a moderate Republican with deep roots in Southern California. An older white guy, Cooley looked a lot like his would-be predecessors. Harris, nearly two decades younger and the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, looked like nobody who held the state’s top law enforcement office before. Harris won the race with a late surge: She capitalized on a mistake by her opponent. She outworked him in the closing stretch. And she persuaded Californians to take a chance on a new kind of AG.

In the middle of another summer slump, this time for her disappointing presidential campaign, Harris began telling the story of her comeback over Cooley to restless donors behind closed doors a few months ago. Her bid for the 2020 Democratic nomination, which began with so much promise, has been marked by a long and painful pattern of self-inflicted lapses and growing disorder among her inexperienced staff. In recent weeks, her plunge in the polls has metastasized into a flatline in the low single digits. She’s tumbled into a virtual fifth-place tie with Amy Klobuchar and Andrew Yang in Iowa and trails the top candidates by double digits there. During fundraisers and conversations with voters, she uses her first statewide race as a road map for her possible march back to relevance.

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Interviews with more than 50 people inside and around her campaign—including current and former aides, confidants and strategists, and Democratic officials who have watched Harris up close for nearly a decade—reveal how a candidate with so much promise, range and charisma has slid so far. Many of her dilemmas are self-created. Harris undermined her national introduction with flubs on health care, feeding a critique that she lacks a strong ideological core and plays to opinion polls and rich donors. She was vague or noncommittal on question after question from voters at campaign stops. She leaned on verbal crutches instead of hammering her main points in high-profile TV moments. The deliberate, evidence-intensive way she arrives at decisions—one of her potential strengths in a matchup with Trump—often made her look wobbly and unprepared.

Harris today has another explanation for her inability to get voters to see her as the next president: what she’s calling the “donkey in the room.” Before a few hundred people on a chilly October night in the Des Moines suburb of Ankeny, surrounded by hay bales and framed by the Iowa flag, she wondered aloud: “Is America ready for that? Are they ready for a woman of color to be president?

“I’m ready for it,” Harris mused, assuming the voice of an ostensibly more enlightened voter. “But I don’t know if other people are.”

Her attempts to level with Americans over their concerns about her pioneering status could look like Harris is making excuses when she’s given Democrats many other reasons to doubt her viability. But Harris is trying to ground her appeal—and addressing tough questions about race, gender and identity—in aspirational terms. She is telling voters that everything they’ve been hearing about why she can’t win, she’s been hearing it her whole life. She didn’t listen. And neither did voters at the time. They shouldn’t be listening to it today, either. Put aside your fears, she tells them, and let’s make this jump—together.

“We have the ability to see the things we may have never seen before, have the ability to believe in what can be unburdened by what has been,” Harris told the voters in Ankeny. “In Iowa, you’ve done it every time. You have always been about breaking barriers and saying, ‘This is possible,’ and leading the way. When you nominated Barack Obama—you did that!” she added in a nod to the state’s pivotal role in elevating the first black president. “And when Hillary Clinton was the first female nominee—you did that!”

Her prospects look grim. Once-optimistic forecasts from her aides now descend into complaints about biased treatment by the news media, some of them valid. But Harris has struggled with how to embrace her record. In January, she announced her presidential run in Oakland with swagger, pointing to her slogan “For the people” and holding it up as the framework for a campaign that would center on her law enforcement credentials and themes like “truth” and “justice.” She privately exuded confidence and toughness when confronted with the criticism she expected to face, aides said. But a searing opinion piece by the law professor Lara Bazelon in the New York Times—published days before Harris formally entered the race and headlined “Kamala Harris Was Not a ‘Progressive Prosecutor’ ”—created a simple, effective template for critical assessments of her record.

Harris, who is prone to questioning her instincts—and who assembled a cadre of top advisers without instituting a clear chain of command—grew nervous about how her positions were playing to a Democratic primary electorate that had moved left on criminal justice reform, according to people who have spoken directly with her. Her aversion to risk on some major issues as attorney general, which earned her a reputation as “Cautious Kamala” in California, cropped up throughout the early stages of the race. The structural dynamic of having her sister, Maya Harris, serve as the campaign chair created internal confusion, and in the minds of some aides and allies reinforced the candidate’s worst habits. Activists and wealthy donors in her ear all seemed to have something to say. Seldom was it helpful in connecting her with the zeitgeist of the party. Nor did it allow her to stay consistent with her message. Often, it did the opposite. But she listened and nodded and second-guessed herself even more. Her forceful personality and strong demographic appeal were replaced with faintness.

With what one longtime Harris associate called “the badass prosecutor” motif sidelined by her own apprehensions, she pivoted to themes that she’d later come to see as having little connection to her personally or professionally, beginning with a sporadically delivered appeal to voters on pocketbook issues. These days, Harris has largely subordinated her so-called 3 a.m. agenda in favor of justice-themed material she’s more comfortable with. The move was viewed inside her campaign as an admission that while the red phone-evoking message may have tested well in polls, it wasn’t sharp enough to resonate in the real world.

Early-state voters have consistently told me they were intrigued and even inspired by Harris’ historic candidacy but many also say they are underwhelmed by her uneven performances, walk-backs on issues and failure to condense a clear rationale for why she should be president. They like her fine. But they like someone else more. A big part of Harris’ base—well-educated white women—has drifted to Elizabeth Warren, while Joe Biden remains dominant with older voters and African Americans.

This fall, Harris finds herself in the most crucial stretch of her presidential candidacy. Last week, her campaign manager, Juan Rodriguez, told staffers he was restructuring the operation by redeploying aides to Iowa from other states and laying off dozens of others, including at the campaign’s Baltimore headquarters. Along with reining in overspending during the third quarter of the year, a big motivation behind the plan is squirreling away enough money for a seven-figure advertising buy in the weeks before the Iowa caucuses. On the ground there, Harris is asking voters to take a leap of faith with her in hopes of a top-three finish that could power her to South Carolina. And in Washington, Democrats are digging into an impeachment process that Harris’ political advisers hope will give the former prosecutor a second—or even third—look from voters.

Even now, three months before the Iowa caucuses, it might not be too late for Harris. She delivered a confident, even dazzling, speech Friday night at the biggest annual Iowa Democratic fundraiser that reminded supporters of her promise. She seems more comfortable with her campaign’s message. Aides have started quizzing reporters about John Kerry’s early mishaps and weak polling at the same time of year in 2003, before he won the Democratic presidential nomination. Yet as Harris returns to her roots as a prosecutor and pairs that with a focus on anxieties about her electability, several people close to her concede doubts about whether voters will give her another chance.

***

Unmistakable signs of a floundering campaign are all around her: Harris’ town hall crowds are thinner and more tepid than they once were. Applause lines are scarcer. Network embeds who have followed her for months are plotting their next moves. Inside her campaign, morale sinks lower with each new poll. Aides sometimes talk about the campaign in the past tense before catching themselves. Unrest over the choices made by top campaign leadership has grown. Some Harris staffers felt blindsided by a decision to lay off field organizers in New Hampshire when they were led to believe they could be redeployed to Iowa.

And yet Harris’ advisers, along with her surrogates and many politicos with no ties to the campaign, stress they aren’t ready to pronounce her bid dead. Perceived fragility atop the field—from Biden’s lackluster fundraising and dawdling debate performances to Bernie Sanders’ health scare and fealty to democratic socialism to Pete Buttigieg’s youth and problems winning black support to Warren’s trillion-dollar wish lists and her own electability questions—mean Harris can hang around as a possible consensus fallback.

It’s far from the juggernaut she envisioned that January afternoon in Oakland, but it’s something. If Biden crashes, these people argue, it’s not a moderate like Buttigieg or Klobuchar who stands to inherit his base of senior citizens and black voters (a good majority of them women). It’s Harris, if she can overcome her jitters and remind Americans what got her here.

After the early October stop in Iowa about “the donkey in the room,” I asked Harris if it’s taken her a while to determine what she should lead with, to settle on what people need to hear from her. She went straight to themes that hinge on her prosecutorial past: Fighting for justice, she said. Fighting for the people.

“Having had the life experience I’ve had, having had the professional experiences I’ve had, people know that I have the ability to fight—and fight on behalf of them,” Harris continued. “And that’s what they want. They want to know that it’s not just about some theoretical concept. That it’s about seeing people in the context in which they live and fighting for them in that context.”

In her race to become California attorney general that she harkens back to as a reason not to count her out in 2020, Harris started from a stronger position than the one she occupied at the beginning of her presidential campaign. Harris, then the district attorney of San Francisco, was the Democratic frontrunner. An early 2010 poll by then-state Assemblyman Ted Lieu had Harris at 19 percent, followed by former Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo at 14 percent, Lieu at 7 percent, Facebook executive Chris Kelly at 4 percent and Assemblyman Alberto Torrico at 2 percent. Fifty-five percent of voters were undecided.

“I think all of us knew it was going to be extremely tough to beat her,” said Torrico, who had tried to position himself as the choice of law enforcement given his backing from police chiefs. He cited Harris’ legal pedigree and powerful connections like President Barack Obama, whom she endorsed early in his 2008 race for president, traveling to Iowa to canvass snowy neighborhoods in a parka.

Harris wrote a campaign book called Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor’s Plan to Make Us Safer, and said she wanted to move the debate beyond law enforcement officers being either “tough” or “soft” on lawbreakers. She pledged to protect consumers and chase white-collar criminals, which she described as “a crime going without consequence.” This was five years before the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and before the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Harris aired a TV ad in the Democratic primary that played off “CSI” themes, showing her in a black suit walking alongside a police officer while a helicopter buzzed overhead and bass pulsated. The ad focused on early intervention (she established a reentry program that later became a national model) and her creation of child assault and environmental justice units, but it also touted “dramatically higher conviction rates for violent crime” under her watch.

Outside the state, observers viewed her identity as an asset. On David Letterman’s show, journalist Gwen Ifill proudly observed that Harris “doesn’t look anything like anybody you ever see on Law and Order. Today show host Matt Lauer called her the “female Obama.”

Still, by the general election, Harris started as a clear underdog against Cooley, the back-slapping moderate and longtime Los Angeles DA. Cooley had run up the score against Harris with the race’s most influential constituency by coalescing the support of law enforcement. “Her campaign, it didn’t seem to have a lot of sizzle,” said Bill Lockyer, a former California attorney general. In part that’s because of the low-profile nature of state AG races, but it’s also because Harris has always had to make history to achieve the towering expectations she sets for herself. A well-known Democratic strategist expressed a view shared by others at the time when he predicted Harris would lose to Cooley. Dismissively, the strategist pointed to nearly everything about Harris that years later she’d seek to emphasize as she prepared to run for president: She was “a woman running for attorney general,” he said, “a woman who is a minority, a woman who is a minority who is anti-death penalty who is DA of wacky San Francisco.”

Cooley appeared content to sit on his modest lead, though his supporters pounded her hard. A lobbyist representing police chiefs and narcotics officers flagged Harris’ decision not to seek the death penalty against the killer of San Francisco police officer Isaac Espinoza, who was gunned down in the line of duty. Harris repeatedly defended her decision, though she acknowledged acting too quickly in making the announcement and pledged her office would be more deliberate in the future. About 20 minutes after Harris sat for a meeting with the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board, Lockyer, a Democrat who was serving as the state treasurer at the time, predicted to the board that Cooley was going to win.Even though,” Lockyer allowed, “he’s a mean, gloomy bureaucrat.”

Harris stayed on the attack. She held a news conference calling on Cooley to answer for his position on abortion rights (Cooley’s campaign said he always supported abortion rights and accused Harris of manufacturing “phony issues with remarkably lame attacks”). She came back and accused him of clinging to a “blind adherence” to old law enforcement ideas while ignoring environmental and financial crimes. She said she would enforce state law despite her opposition to the death penalty.

During their only debate, which given the lack of media interest wasn’t carried on live TV or radio, Cooley had the only memorable moment—and Harris’ campaign made him pay for it. Asked whether he would “double dip” by accepting the state’s $150,000-plus salary and his county pension from more than three decades of service, Cooley didn’t hesitate: “I earned it. I definitely earned whatever pension rights I have, and I will certainly rely upon that to supplement the very low—incredibly low—salary that’s paid to the state attorney general.” Harris flashed a wide smile and let out a big laugh when asked to comment: “Go for it, Steve,” she said, prompting some cross-talk and more laughter. “You’ve earned it—there’s no question.”

Harris narrowed the gap with a handful of weeks left. Obama endorsed her. She cut a devastating TV ad capturing Cooley’s casual downplaying of the $150,000 salary (California’s median household income in 2009 was $56,344) amid a protracted recession and years of state budget cuts. She worked to sway black voters in Oakland and Los Angeles.

During a speech to hundreds of members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, she advised the religious leaders to resist the feelings their vote won’t count. She urged them to look at how black voters helped elevate Obama to the presidency two years before. She told the story of her upbringing—the child of academics from Jamaica and India who were active in the civil rights movement; her time at Howard University on protest lines where she was inspired by Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley and grew convinced that she would be better positioned to make change from the inside. That led to her becoming a prosecutor—and to her election in 2003 (and reelection in 2007) as the first black woman to become district attorney of San Francisco. Once there, she created the Back on Track program that helped lower recidivism rates among nonviolent offenders to less than 10 percent, compared with 53 percent across California.

With the election just a month away, she spoke to a congregation in Los Angeles. “You know, there was a time when folks said we couldn’t vote, and others who said we won’t,” Harris said, pausing slightly, “and we’ve got to prove them wrong.”

***

This year, Harris is again straining to rebut her skeptics and the idea that she’s impossible to pin down. The energy on the Iowa State University campus in Ames was muted as she prepared to take the stage last month. Several people in the audience told me they were there to hear that “one thing” that sets Harris apart from her rivals. She asked for LL Cool J’s “Momma Said Knock You Out” as her walk-on song. “Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years,” it begins.

It had been nine months since her most consequential—and ill-fated—utterance of the 2020 presidential campaign, when Harris answered a health care question in prime time during a CNN town hall in Des Moines. Host Jake Tapper told Harris he believed “Medicare for All” would completely eliminate private insurance. “So, for people out there who like their insurance,” Tapper asked Harris, “they don’t get to keep it?”

Harris said the idea is that everyone gets access to medical care. “And you don’t have to go through the process of going through an insurance company, having them give you approval, going through the paperwork, all of the delay that may require,” she continued. “Who of us have not had that situation where you've got to wait for approval and the doctor says, ‘Well, I don’t know if your insurance company’s going to cover this?’

“Let’s eliminate all of that. Let’s move on.”

The reaction to her answer was swift, her first big test of the campaign. Establishment Democrats and critics on the right used it to paint single-payer health care as extreme, a financial pipe dream, even a mortal threat to everyone who prefers their private plan.

Harris’ team spent the next day stressing she was “running on Medicare for All,” but it was careful to point to the other health care bills she also supported in Congress. Some advisers urged her to stick with her support for Bernie Sanders’ plan and argued that she would risk angering the left. But back in Iowa the next month, Harris put some distance between herself and Sanders. Under her vision for Medicare for All, Harris said, the phase-in period would be longer, and she would preserve the role of private insurers to at least provide supplemental coverage.

Harris first endorsed Medicare for All two years ago, part of an effort to shake off her cautious reputation at home and align more closely with a Democratic base that was already starting to dissect her. When Sanders reintroduced his bill in 2017, Harris was the first senator to co-sponsor it. She joined him on stage in Washington for a news conference. She ran ads online proudly brandishing her support. As she prepared to campaign for president, Harris gave no indication she would run on anything besides Medicare for All. If there was internal consideration for crafting her own health care plan, the discussion never made it to her policy staff.

Yet in February and later, Harris continued to tinker with her answers to health care questions while her aides argued that Sanders’ bill actually permits private insurers. (It does, but only in the narrowest sense.) The argument struck many as Clintonesque triangulation.

In May, she was back on CNN for another interview with Tapper, again clarifying her health care stance. “I support Medicare for All, but I really do need to clear up what happened on that stage,” she said of the January town hall. “It was in the context of saying, ‘Let’s get rid of all the bureaucracy, let’s get all of the waste.”

Harris’ see-sawing exposed her lack of policy chops on the most important Democratic issue of the election cycle and raised questions about whether she knew what she stood for. She heard from a cacophony of voices, including donors and other advisers who wanted her to thread the needle and back away more fully from Sanders’ dismissal of private insurers. That was Harris’ preference, too. But in June, in her first presidential debate, she joined Sanders in raising her hand when NBC News’ Lester Holt asked whether candidates would “abolish their private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan.”

The next day, on “Morning Joe,” Harris said she thought the question was about whether she would give up her own private insurance. Harris again clarified she didn’t support eliminating private insurers, which is where she’d finally arrived. She unveiled her own health care plan in late July. It seeks to allow Americans to choose between a public plan and certified private Medicare plans. Health policy wonks gave it high marks, but the thrashing she took over the issue has been lasting.

Harris’ second breakout moment of the campaign had a similar boomerang effect. Coming into the first debate in June, Harris’ team prepared for scenarios in which she could use her life story to contrast with Biden’s record on issues of race and criminal justice, including his opposition to busing to integrate schools in the 1970s. Her opening came the prior week, when Biden waxed nostalgic about working with segregationist Sens. James Eastland and Herman Talmadge, proponents of using states’ rights to slow down civil rights legislation. During the debate, Harris interjected amid questions about race and policing: “As the only black person on this stage, I’d like to speak on the issue of race,” she said. Harris was given 30 seconds. She quickly turned it on Biden.

“I do not believe you are a racist,” she said, referring to his recent comments about his ability to work across the aisle. “And I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground. But I also believe, and it’s personal — it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.

“And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing,” she continued, the debate hall silent. “And you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day.

“And that little girl was me.”

Biden, appearing stunned by the challenge, called it a “mischaracterization” and emphasized his civil rights record. He took a veiled shot at Harris’ choice to become a prosecutor before meandering back to the busing issue. Harris, he argued, “would have been able to go to school the same exact way because it was a local decision made by your City Council. That’s fine,” Biden said.

After Biden said he wanted to keep busing a local decision, Harris told him schools where she grew up in Berkeley weren’t fully integrated until “almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education,” adding, “and that’s where the federal government must step in.”

Biden started in, then relented, ultimately cutting himself off: “Anyway, my time is up. I’m sorry.”

Harris seemed to have put Biden on the mat, but in the end he got the better of the exchange. His team hounded news reporters to press Harris over where she stood on busing. Some Harris advisers wanted her to keep her answers high level, suggesting she say she would enforce the Civil Rights Act. The courts have tied her hands, she was counseled to argue, but she’d do everything she could, including using mandatory busing today, to address the fact that schools are more segregated now than they were then.

Instead, Harris cast busing as not the responsibility of the federal government, but a choice of local districts. “I believe that any tool that is in the toolbox should be considered by a school district,” she said. Harris shortly after clarified that she supported federally mandated busing in the kind of situations that occurred in the 1970s—when local and state integration efforts were rebuffed or proved ineffective. The situation in 2019, Harris argued, is different than it was then. In the end, her stance on busing became conflated with Biden’s past position, helping his campaign cement the impression that her attack was born of opportunism rather than conviction.

Harris’ twin blunders started the precipitous drop in polls that she hasn’t recovered from. And it led to her disastrous showing in the second debate, where she responded halfheartedly after absorbing body blows about her prosecutorial record from the low-polling Tulsi Gabbard. The Hawaii congresswoman broadsided Harris with a slew of criticisms—accusing her of jailing 1,500 people for marijuana crimes; of blocking evidence that would have freed an innocent man until a court stepped in; of keeping people behind bars beyond their sentences to use as cheap labor and opposing bail reform. The claims mostly lacked context or were misleading.

Harris decided against getting into it with Gabbard and instead gave a boilerplate answer about working to reform the criminal justice system. “And I am proud of that work,” she concluded. It was the most visible evidence of her larger indecision over how to handle the attacks on her prosecutorial record that began in earnest with Bazelon’s op-ed in the New York Times.

“Are we apologizing for being a prosecutor, or not?” a Harris aide asked after the debate. “She should have knocked her out,” concluded another adviser.

Markos Moulitsas, founder and publisher of the liberal Daily Kos, said he came away feeling “horrified” by Harris’ non-answer to Gabbard. Watching her rise in California, Moulitsas predicted the primary would come down to Harris and Warren. He pinpointed the run-up to the debate—specifically her response to Gabbard—as the precise instant Harris fell from the top tier.

“These were the questions that were sitting there unasked, and unanswered, and this was her moment to turn that potential weakness into an advantage,” Moulitsas told me. “Instead, she sounded upset that it was even brought up—and that she was even being questioned. She doesn’t have that benefit of the doubt.

“To me, it sounded like she was embarrassed about it,” he continued. “Like she had no answer for it and she just wanted to deflect and hope that people wouldn’t notice. But people did notice. That’s the biggest argument against her. Why wouldn’t you take that head-on in a prime-time audience?”

Several Harris aides, current and former, describe a kind of performance anxiety that washes over her in tense times. She can have trouble listening, processing and answering in these moments, they say. She might be too quick to please a questioner. Or she might engage the premise of their question rather than using it to make her own points. Other times, she reverts to the comfortable scripts in her head out of fear that she might say the wrong thing. Since her campaign began, Harris said on at least three occasions that she misheard a question, most recently when she laughed and seemed to agree when a man at her town hall called Trump’s agenda “mentally retarded.” Aides played the video back to her. Harris called it “upsetting” and apologized.

The imperative to raise money, too, contributed to a flip-flopping reputation that persisted into the fall. When Harris’ staff was approached about CNN’s climate town hall in September—and told the leading contenders already agreed to participate—higher-ups instructed her communications aides to sit it out in favor of fundraisers in Los Angeles. CNN published a report saying Harris would skip the climate town hall, citing scheduling conflicts. Harris was not informed of the decision until after the story landed and was criticized online for her misplaced priorities. The campaign ultimately agreed to attend.

Harris has long been seen as a politician who tries to avoid taking positions on difficult issues, including those in her wheelhouse. Twice, in 2012 and 2016, she refused to weigh in on narrowly defeated ballot initiatives in California that would have repealed the death penalty. In 2014, she sat out the debate over an important criminal justice reform measure that downgraded several felony crimes to misdemeanors. She was mum on former Gov. Jerry Brown’s sentencing reform effort, which voters also passed. She wanted little to do with the successful ballot initiative that legalized recreational marijuana. She gave a technical answer to explain her absences: It was the job of the attorney general to prepare the ballot summaries voters saw.

A close observer who worked alongside Harris for years said her decision to avoid the state’s most consequential justice reform measures is instructive of her chief deficiency. “She has a very eloquent and forceful way of equivocating,” the observer said. “But in the end, she’s equivocating.”

***

In the months since Harris drew tens of thousands of energized supporters to Oakland, her formal presidential campaign announcement has started to look like her campaign’s high point. In September, Harris was back in the East Bay to open the first campaign office in her home state. The senator and her surrogates sought to pump up the crowd, offering paeans to the city’s toughness and perseverance in the face of doubters and emphasizing the need to rally Californians ahead of the state’s moved-up March primary (“a really big deal,” Harris declared).

But money hasn’t flowed at the expected pace. It was difficult to create social media content around her misty message. This increased her reliance on big-dollar events, which took her off the road in early states and ate into her time talking with voters and media. Harris wasn’t comfortable making promises she knew she couldn’t keep, but her policy proposals felt small when bigger and bolder was ruling the day.

“Campaigns are long, intense experiences with fluid dynamics, but throughout this entire primary, Kamala has been a top-five candidate with a unique message about pursuing justice on behalf of the people,” Ian Sams, Harris’ press secretary, said in a written statement to POLITICO. “With three months still to go before Iowa, a majority of primary voters still don’t know for sure who they’ll support in this race, so Kamala is going to keep working hard to show why she’s the best candidate to lead the party and defeat Donald Trump.”

Even so, some wistfully recall that January launch, when the idea that she might not even make it to the California primary seemed improbable. “Those of you who were there, we need you to remember,” Oakland City Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney told the crowd in September, evoking a time “before the slurs, before the attacks” and unfair media treatment damaged Harris’ standing.

“It’s time to put Oakland in the White House,” the councilwoman added.

Harris has spent decades trying to overcome the biases against being a woman—and a woman of color— in law enforcement and in politics. She’s tried to convey not only her policy initiatives, but also what her inside-the-system role has meant to those like the black mothers of slain teens and young men who pounded on her office doors and wouldn’t leave until they were allowed to meet with Harris. They were looking for answers—and justice.

People have long tried to categorize Harris along racial or ideological lines. She’s been asked many times over the campaign if she’s black enough. There’s a strong feeling in her camp that she has to do it not just backward and in heels, but be better than her rivals as she does so. “Even though President Obama broke the barrier, she is still working to break the hardest barrier,” said Minyon Moore, a former senior adviser on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign who knows Kamala and Maya. “We can’t underestimate that.”

Harris has never been a voracious consumer of news, and she prefers decidedly normal hobbies like cooking to standing in front of a mirror and studying the successful tics of past presidents. In the early weeks of her presidential campaign, the lane she appeared destined to occupy—one reserved for someone new and not in their 70s—was claimed first, briefly, by Beto O’Rourke and his minivan-powered tabletop act, and then Buttigieg, the boy wonder next door who wowed donors and the “Morning Joe”/Acela-corridor crowd. In recent months, Harris aides and loyal online supporters have pointed out headlines and news stories that feature others and leave her out entirely—even on issues she’s championed. There’s been a flutter of social media shares from frustrated staffers pushing back on the harsh grading of her performances by media pundits: She’s been too angry, or too loose, or laughed too much.

And from the campaign’s earliest days, aides and surrogates flagged social media posts about Harris that spouted debunked conspiracies. Twitter attacks on Harris in the week after the first debates far outnumbered those against Warren, Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg and Klobuchar combined, according to an analysis by MarvelousAI, a start-up that looks at political speech and misinformation on social media.

Most of Harris’ advisers are sophisticated enough to know that the kvetching won’t win them sympathy. Some know it will backfire. But they believe she’s been treated unfairly. “I think Kamala Harris is a victim of the press,” Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Harris endorser, recently said on CBS4 in Miami. “I don’t think they give her the type of exposure that they give to the other candidates.”

Mark Thompson, a veteran radio host and NAACP activist who spoke with Harris on his “Make it Plain” show on SiriusXM, questioned why Biden could do a 180-degree turn on justice reform, including coming out against the death penalty after 40-plus years of support, while Harris has been tagged by progressives as being too tough on crime. “I think the level of skepticism and disdain is born out of the long-standing tradition of racism and sexism in America,” Thompson told me. “So, a woman, and particularly a black woman, has to explain, ‘Are you an opportunist?’ ‘What are you really up to?’ There’s a level of doubt there that men don’t face.”

Thompson, sighing as he reached for a summarizing thought, paraphrased a 1962 quote from Malcom X (later sampled by Beyoncé). “The most disrespected, the most unprotected, the most neglected person in America is the black woman,” he said, adding a 2020 twist of his own, “despite the realization of what they mean in the electorate.”

Harris isn’t giving up, but some around her are already musing about what might come next. There’s the possibility of being picked as someone’s running mate. The Supreme Court has come up a few times. In Iowa, Harris said she doesn’t think anyone — “on any real level” — questions her ability or strength to be on a debate stage with Trump. She’ll be talking about that more. But most of all, she said, she believes that the media debate over who is electable and who isn’t has affected how voters look at her candidacy.

She wants to have that conversation, she told me, “out loud instead of just in our heads.”

Jeremy B. White of POLITICO California contributed to this report.

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