Kamala Harris tries to put spotlight on Trump
Kamala Harris started her performance at the third Democratic presidential debate not by addressing her rivals on the stage but by declaring she had “a few words” for the man she hopes to replace.
“You have used hate, intimidation, fear and over 12,000 lies as a way to distract from your failed policies and your broken promises,” Harris said directly into the camera. “And now, President Trump, you can go back to watching Fox News.”
Trump wasn’t actually watching Thursday night — he was speaking at a congressional Republican retreat in Baltimore at the same time. (The president said he would record the debate and “watch it as a rerun.”)
But by explicitly directing her performance to an audience of one — and pivoting to attacks on Trump in almost all of her answers over the course of the night — Harris tried to show worried Democratic voters that she’d be the toughest candidate to take on the president next year.
Trump had a “fragile ego.” He deserved to be indicted, she argued. And while he didn’t pull the trigger in the El Paso shooting, she said, “he was tweeting out the ammunition.”
Harris has learned the hard way that a single breakout debate moment isn’t enough to give her campaign sustainable momentum. In the first debate in June, her viral attack on Joe Biden over race and segregation won massive attention and a surge in donations and polls — but since then, her numbers have plummeted back to earth.
She’s also fighting a growing perception that the Democratic race is becoming a three-way scrap between Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, with Harris and the rest of the field falling behind.
So as other candidates sparred over issues like Medicare-for-all and immigration, Harris tried mostly to stay above the fray and focus on the occupant of the White House.
“At least five people have talked, some repeatedly on the subject, and not once have we talked about Donald Trump,” she chided her fellow candidates after a scrap between Sanders and Biden over health care. “Let’s focus on the end goal: If we don’t get Donald Trump out of office, he’s gonna get rid of all of it.”
It’s a bet by her campaign that Democratic voters are watching the debates not only as a battle of ideas but as an audition for the general election face-off against Trump. Her supporters hope that Harris’ mix of crisp broadsides, collected demeanor, and almost Trumpian insults would make Democratic voters dream of a debate stage with her and the president.
“He reminds me of that guy in The Wizard of Oz — when you pull back the curtain, it’s a really small dude,” she said to laughs when discussing trade policy — the kind of remark you could imagine the president tweeting a response to at 5 a.m. Friday morning.
But Harris still struggled to articulate a compelling argument for what makes her stand out among the crowded field of candidates — an issue that drives her campaign, like Sanders’ call for a political revolution or Biden’s promises of a return to stability.
While the California senator said she wanted to “address the problems that keep you up at night” — one of her favorite lines — she didn’t do much to explain what that meant. And, preoccupied with Trump, she ended up sacrificing time that she could have used to lay out her policy proposals.
Harris also still found herself responding to criticism about her criminal justice record, which continues to be a liability for her among liberals. And some of her lines came off as more canned than clever.
“Hey Joe, instead of saying ‘we can’t,’ let’s say ‘yes we can,’” Harris told Biden at one point — a remark that fell flat in the debate hall as Harris laughed at her own joke.
She also worked to inject more of her own story and personality into her answers than in the past. When pressed about her history as a prosecutor, Harris framed her work in emotional terms.
“I’ve seen more autopsy photographs than I care to tell you. I have attended more police officer funerals than I care to tell you. I have hugged more mothers of homicide victims than I care to tell you,” she said.
And she talked about how she thought of climate change by thinking about “my baby nieces, one and a half and three years old — when I look at what is going to be the world, if we do nothing, when they turn 20, I’m really scared.”
Overall, Harris didn’t get as much of the spotlight as she did in the last two debates — in part because all three of the race’s frontrunners were onstage together for the first time.
And because she’s fallen in the polls, she wasn’t a target of attacks from the other candidates, as she was in the last debate.
One of the most high-profile dust-ups was between two Obama administration veterans, Biden and former housing secretary Julián Castro. They sparred over healthcare and the former president’s legacy, with Castro taunting Biden about his memory — in an attack that turned out to be mistaken — and blasting him for proposing a plan that he said would leave millions of people uninsured.
“I’m fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama, and you’re not,” Castro declared. “That’ll be a surprise to him,” Biden shot back.
And former Rep. Beto O’Rourke scored the most memorable answer of the night when he talked in emotional terms about the mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso, and declared his support for a mandatory buyback of assault weapons “designed to kill people on a battlefield.”
“Hell yes we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” he declared to cheers. “We’re not going to allow them to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.”