She and her advisers assiduously plotted the attack — and how to capitalize on it afterward.
Kamala Harris’ campaign is spending the next three days trying to extend the best two hours of her political career.
Harris’ surprise cross-examination of frontrunner Joe Biden produced the third-biggest fundraising bonanza since her launch. The Democratic senator is working to capitalize ahead of a crucial second quarter fundraising deadline: She blanketed news shows with nearly a dozen TV appearances, and her digital team is pumping out clips and other reminders of her interrogating Biden, hoping that Democratic voters will envision her doing the same thing to Donald Trump.
Story Continued Below
“It’s a great springboard,” said Bakari Sellers, the former state lawmaker and top Harris surrogate in South Carolina, saying it would add rocket fuel to her end-of-quarter fundraising push. Sellers said he’s taken a just-you-wait approach with people who’ve questioned Harris’ stock. “Last night, everyone said ‘there it is right there.’ No one can describe what ‘it’ is. But now they know she has it.”
Inside Harris’ campaign, the first debate was viewed as the unofficial start of the contest, the first big opportunity when primary voters start paying attention to the presidential race. The debate coincided with a new level of comfort she’s described feeling in recent weeks with opening up about her upbringing and personal life, more than a half-dozen aides and allies told POLITICO, something they’ve been gently urging her to do as a way to forge a connection with many voters who don’t know her.
Harris was seen as having an enviable debate night draw because she avoided a confrontation with a surging Elizabeth Warren in exchange for being among all three of the other top-polling candidates. With Cory Booker appearing on the first night, Harris, whose father immigrated from Jamaica and late mother from India, was also the only black candidate in her Thursday grouping.
Harris’ objective was not to fade into the background of an ideological slugfest between Biden and Bernie Sanders, the advisers said. Her campaign had spent months fixated on Biden, whose support from black voters has kept him atop all of the early polls. They gamed out several scenarios in which she could use her personal story as a point of contrast with his decades-long record, including over his opposition to busing.
In the debate, Harris willed her way into the conversation about race and policing, calmly noting that as the only black person on the stage, she’d like to be heard.
But her opening first came last week when Biden offered nostalgic memories of a time when he worked with segregationist colleagues like Sens. James Eastland and Herman Talmadge, proponents of using states’ rights to slow walk civil rights legislation. Harris, whose sole experience with a full stage of competitors came during her Senate primary in 2016, prepped with a small team of aides in Washington and then in Miami. A senior strategist, Averell “Ace” Smith, imitated Sanders, while Biden was played by Harris’ national press secretary, Ian Sams.
While walking through her planned exchange with Biden over busing, Harris’ campaign planned for a variety of answers from him, from contrition to a more measured approach to the more forceful denial of the position that he ended up giving — a stance that was called out by fact-checkers as untrue given his past quotes rejecting the wisdom of busing.
Harris herself ended up settling on a line that within minutes would appear in social media memes and just a few hours later would be screen printed on t-shirts selling for $29 on her website: “That little girl was me,” she said, of her desegregated class.
“You replay the thing and it seems like she was having a conversation with him,” a Harris campaign official said in playing back the encounter. The point she drove home, the aide added, was “this was something that meant something to me.”
Under no scenario did they consider Biden offering her such a gift to conclude the exchange: “My time is up,” Biden said. “I’m sorry.”
Harris’ aides in the early states said they’ve been inundated with calls since the debate ended, including from activists and officials they’d reached out to weeks ago but hadn’t heard back from. Harris travels next to California where she’ll headline five fundraisers over 30 hours in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and appear at three events for San Francisco’s Pride celebration.
Harris had been in search of a breakout moment to match her tough questioning of Attorney General William Barr in May, and her pummeling of Trump cabinet officials since she arrived in the Senate in 2017. She proved she can translate that same type of performance to a campaign setting, said Brian Fallon, a former aide to Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer.
“That goes a long way to helping voters envision her prosecuting the case against Trump on a debate stage next fall,” he said, “which is exactly the impression she wants to leave with Democrats who are prioritizing vague notions of electability.”
Harris moved immediately to capture the momentum, which became clear even before the debate ended: The size of her average online contribution shot up 67% in real time. She appeared in four separate on-camera hits with MSNBC and two with CNN late Thursday and early Friday, caught about two hours of sleep and then went live on CBS’ “This Morning,” “Morning Joe” and taped an interview for Sunday with MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt. She visited the for-profit detention center for unaccompanied migrant children, in Homestead, Fla., with other presidential candidates and then raced back to Washington to cast votes in the Senate.
After decamping from California, Harris’ campaign expects her to spend considerable time in Iowa, where she’s been busy hiring more staff and securing caucus commitments. On Friday, Des Moines activist Tom Fisher offered his endorsement, pointing to her firm presence on the debate stage. Fisher’s term for Harris was one she’s used occasionally to describe herself: “joyful warrior.”