WASHINGTON – Kamala Harris entered the presidential race with impressive credentials – a popular black woman with an inspiring story who hailed from a large Democratic state and drew accolades for her fiery questioning of President Donald Trump’s nominees.
Yet despite a shot of adrenaline after confronting front-runner Joe Biden in the first debate, she has failed to catch fire with Democratic voters who are torn between a nostalgic fondness for Biden and a revolutionary desire for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.
Harris’s attempt to replicate her feat in the second debate backfired among Democrats who say she went too negative on Biden. The Californian also suffers from a perception that she lacks a deep ideological well to guide her policy ideas, in contrast to her three main rivals who are better-defined. And her past as a prosecutor has earned her supporters and detractors.
Harris and Sen. Cory Booker “really went after Vice President Biden – it redounded to their detriment that they went after Biden so much. Because it also looked like they were not just going after Biden, but they were going after the Obama legacy,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which is neutral in the primaries.
Weingarten said many Democrats left the June debate thinking, “Kamala seems really feisty and let’s look at her.” But in the July debate they were turned off by Harris and other aggressors because “it looked like they were burning the house down, as opposed to building on what Democrats believe in.”
Harris surged from about 7% to 15% in averages of Democratic polls immediately after the first debate in late June, putting her in second or third place in the crowded field. But it was a sugar high – she’s back to the 7% she had when summer began.
For Harris, the danger is that she’s another Marco Rubio. The Florida senator, too, had a potentially history-making candidacy during the Republican nomination battle in 2016 and was hailed by the party establishment as presidential timber, before he failed to translate that on the ground.
“Our focus is on winning the primary, not an off-year August news cycle, which is why we’ve spent the summer building the grassroots organizing foundation that will propel Kamala to victory in this race,” Harris spokesman Ian Sams said in an email. “These races are marathons, not sprints, and Kamala is a long-distance runner.”
In late July, Harris backed off her previous support for replacing private insurance with a national government plan and released a proposal that preserves the option for private plans, positioning herself ideologically between Sanders and Biden on one of the most contentious issues in the race.
But rather than placating both wings, the move drew fire from all sides – the Sanders campaign accused her of going soft, Biden charged her with “double talk,” and voters were left wondering what she stands for.
“Too flippy-floppy. I just don’t like her,” said Debby Fisher of Richmond, Calif. – near Harris’s hometown of Oakland – who plans to support Sanders.