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Iowa Is Getting Serious About Kamala Harris

After bashing Joe Biden on the debate stage, Harris returns to a much more receptive audience in Iowa.

by Cameron Joseph
Jul 5 2019, 2:28pm

DES MOINES, Iowa — She wants to keep the momentum going. He needs to stanch the bleeding.

California Sen. Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden returned to Iowa over the Fourth of July holiday in their first campaign swings since their pivotal debate last week.

The last time Harris and Biden swung through, he was the man to beat and she was just one among many candidates hoping for a shot at him. But after the pre-holiday debate fireworks, it appears the state is anyone’s for the taking.

Harris was feted like a rockstar at West Des Moines Democrats Picnic on Wednesday, getting as warm a reception from the hundreds in attendance as the sweltering temperatures as she posed for selfie after selfie with new fans. Her longstanding line that she was “prepared to prosecute the case” against Trump rang a little truer to Iowa Democrats after they watched her take it to Biden on the debate stage a week earlier.

Lauren Lukaszewski and her wife Jennifer Glenn were among those who got to meet Harris at the event. They both said Harris’s debate performance had moved her to the top tier of candidates list right now alongside of Elizabeth Warren, with Cory Booker still in the mix.

“I just thanked her for being competent and articulate about the issues,” Lukaszewski said. “I was really impressed with the way that she held herself. And the fact that she got directly into it with Joe Biden was pretty refreshing.”

That sentiment that Harris was on the march was widespread amongst Iowa Democrats — even with some of those who prefer Biden.

Harlan Quick, a retired teacher and former mayor of small-town State Center, was among the hundreds on hand to watch the former vice president speak at a Best Western in Marshalltown on the 4th. He said the debates hadn’t changed his mind that Biden would be the best candidate to take on President Trump — but that Harris had gotten the better of the former vice president.

“I wasn't disappointed in his performance, [but] I wasn't inspired by it”

“I thought Harris had a very good performance. I think it puts her as one of the top tier candidates,” he said. “I wasn't disappointed in his performance, [but] I wasn't inspired by it.”

Dozens of Iowans told VICE that they were giving Harris another look after her strong debate performance, where she scolded the other candidates for causing a “food fight” by talking over each other before delivering a well-orchestrated blow against Biden over his work with segregationist senators to limit federally enforced busing aimed at desegregating local school districts.

The polls bear that out.

Biden slipping

A slew of national surveys taken immediately after the debate mostly showed Biden slipping, with his lead over the field dropping to single digits in some polls. By contrast, Harris is headed in the other direction, doubling her support in most of those surveys, jumping from the mid-single digits to the mid- to high teens in many polls. She jumped as high as into second place in some surveys.

In an era when all politics is national, that’s carried over strongly in early-voting Iowa. A post-debate poll of Iowa Democrats conducted by Suffolk University for USA Today found Biden holding steady at 24% support but Harris jumping to 16%, more than double her numbers from the last time the group surveyed the state. Elizabeth Warren was at 13%, with Bernie Sanders slipping to 9% support. Another reputable statewide survey found Warren leading with 20%, with Harris and Biden right behind her at 18% and 17%.

Harris’s team has almost 65 staff on the ground in Iowa, nearly as many as the other top campaigns, but many of those were hired recently. She hasn’t prioritized Iowa as highly in its campaign strategy so far as the more-diverse states of Nevada and South Carolina, with a bet that a strong-enough showing in Iowa or New Hampshire will allow her to make a play later in the process. She may not need to win either of those whiter, older states to have a path to the nomination, but likely needs a good showing in at least one of them. Biden, conversely, almost certainly needs to win one and potentially both states if he’s going to lock up the nomination.

And right now, Harris might be pulling more from other candidates already skeptical of Biden than straight from the former veep. Most voters who were newly considering her told VICE News their other top candidate was Warren, while those newly hesitant about Biden weren’t ready to jump onboard with anyone else yet — or talked about other more moderate candidates like Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who spoke shortly after Harris in West Des Moines.

Both Harris and Biden kept their fire trained on Trump during their actual speeches — Harris worked in a new stump speech line that “we have a predator living in the White House" after detailing her career as a prosecutor at multiple stops, while Biden mocked Trump for organizing a tank-filled Fourth of July event on the National Mall “designed more to stroke his ego than celebrate American ideals.”

War of words

But on the sidelines, the two continued to spar over their respective records on busing, disagreeing on exactly how adamant he was against the controversial policy in the 1970s with Harris avoiding clear answers on what role busing should play in modern policy making. Both were asked about the policy on the trail repeatedly, while their respective staffs kept up a running flame war on Twitter over the issue.

Harris refused to say she wanted to implement busing on a national scale on Wednesday, while saying it would be part of her broader “toolkit” to end educational segregation, leading Biden’s team accuse her of holding the same policy she slammed him for. Her team responded that the circumstances of 1973 and 2019 are very different.

But what voters seemed more attuned to than the policy disagreement was the precision in which she took on the vice president — and his stumbling response in the moment. The broad consensus from dozens of Iowans at events for both politicians was that she came off as sharp and cutting, while he showed his age. For a party desperate to find a nominee who can go toe-to-toe with Trump on the campaign trail and the debate stage, that’s a huge thing to consider.

“People like to see someone who's gonna fight and be feisty”

“People like to see someone who's gonna fight and be feisty, and she showed her willingness in the debate to do that,” Iowa State Auditor Rob Sand said after watching Harris speak in West Des Moines.

Sand, who is neutral in the primary, said that Biden has long gotten a pass as a “lovable guy that you know, has a good heart, and yet at the same time, says stuff and does stuff that you think is a little bit funny sometimes.”

“We might be at a point now where we combine those things with his age, instead of it being fun becomes just a little bit more distracting,” he said.

The first round of debates are just the first major turning point in a long slog of a presidential nomination process. And with renewed interest comes renewed scrutiny. That became clear at a Harris event with NARAL Pro-Choice America that hastily moved indoors to the loading dock of the Confluence Brewery due to a sudden downpour. At that event, a black female college student told Harris during a Q&A that she was worried about some of what she’d heard about the senator’s record as a prosecutor.

And Harris’s lawyerly style may not fly with everyone. Bart and Jane Dupuis, a pair of schoolteachers from Ames, came away impressed with Harris after seeing her at the brewery — Bart said she came off “like Obama.” But both said they’d been a bit turned off with how she went after Biden. Jane described her as coming off “a little harsh” in that exchange.

“Unfortunately, because she’s a woman, I think some people will judge her on that debate performance as being kind of mean and kind of a bitch. Here, she doesn’t come across like that,” Jane said. “I just kept thinking, ‘what will other people think?’”

While voters are clearly newly intrigued by Harris, most said they hadn’t made up their minds. Many had her and Warren neck-and-neck in their own minds, and if Warren gets her own shot at Biden (or Harris, for that matter) in the next debates in Detroit a few weeks from now the race could once again see a major shakeup.

And it’s still almost seven months until Iowa’s famous caucuses kick of the primary election season for good.

But one thing’s for sure. Biden’s core campaign argument that he’s the best-prepared to go toe-to-toe with Trump took a big hit last week with Democrats, at least for now. Iowa voters are reevaluating whether he’s the person for the job. And Harris is getting a serious look.

Cover: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris greets local residents during the West Des Moines Democrats' annual picnic, Wednesday, July 3, 2019, in West Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)