Sen. Kamala Harris stole the show in the second presidential debate and did much to enhance her standing before a national audience.
She did so by very adeptly combining her well-honed prosecutorial skills as the state’s previous Attorney General and San Francisco’s former District Attorney with a bit of spontaneous peace-keeping at exactly the right moment when the exchanges were getting over-heated.
“Hey guys, you know what?” thundered Harris, “America does not want to witness a food fight, they want to know how we are going to put food on their table.”
You cannot rehearse lines like that. The unsilenceable Miami audience in attendance roared in appreciation while her opponents and their advisors looking on knew she had just hit a home run.
But there was more to come from the sole black person and one of the only three women on the platform.
In what should have been anticipated, Harris launched a direct attack on the former Vice President, Joe Biden, for prior remarks which suggested he was comfortable as a Senator working with two of the chamber’s arch segregationists —Herman Talmadge of Georgia and James Eastland of Mississippi —both long since deceased.
She was the only one on the stage who could lob such a grenade with impunity and she knew it. More about that in a moment.
The debate had been billed as a showdown between Biden—who is still enjoying front-runner polling status—and Sen. Bernie Sanders who has been running second in most polls.
That duel never materialized.
Together they were the two aging elders on stage which—fairly or not—make them fair prey for the large number of younger aspirants.
Biden is the unmistakable symbol of a bygone generation of leaders that Harris and another California contender, Dublin Rep. Eric Swalwell, hope to replace.
Swalwell, who joined the fray belatedly, has shown little traction and may have thrown his hat in the ring on a whim.
Sanders is one year older than his former Senate mate but the more legitimate claimant to the positions that an incoming generation of left-leaning Democrats have been quick to embrace.
The irrepressible Vermonton, who is battling with Sen. Elizabeth Warren— the first debate night’s widely acknowledged winner —to capture their party’s liberal wing, passed up any temptation to go after Biden just standing inches way.
That turned out to be sound strategy.
Swalwell, also a former prosecutor, standing to the extreme right had two minutes of total speaking time, second least only to Marianne Williamson, a “spiritualist” author at the opposite end who had no reason to be there.
Talking out of turn and taking square aim at the two guys old enough to be his father, the 38-year old Swalwell blurted, “You can’t count on the people who have been in government for the last 30 years to be the ones to solve it.”
Harris, who is working hard to maintain favor among her party’s activist base spotted the opening and quickly pounced.
Doubling down on Biden’s refusal to apologize for his coziness with avowed segregationists but realizing his continuing popularity with many black voters who will factor heavily in the early South Carolina primary an beyond, she went on the offensive.
Though making explicit she did not consider Biden a racist, the inference was clear when she accused him of failing to oppose federally mandated school busing as a Senator.
Biden, flustered and seemingly unprepared, defended his views arguing that desegregation at that time was an issue for local governments—a state’s rights position that had already been thoroughly discredited by the majority of his liberal colleagues then seated.
Perhaps the most dramatic moment came—when looking directly at Biden by now rendered nearly speechless—Harris recalled being one of the first children bused in Berkeley long after the Supreme Court’s monumental ruling in 1954 outlawing segregation in schools.
Harris’s ability to personalize her background in a deeply convincing and emotive way—something which Hillary Clinton was not able to accomplish—has become a staple in her appearances.
If she can reprise this performance effectively in the months to come without alienating voters who might be put off by her natural aggressiveness she could be a formidable opponent.
Her bump in the poll standings which is one likely result of her headline-grabbing audition before such a large audience could also make her a prime target for others who will be forced now to play catch-up.
It could also help build a reputation she will need as someone who can stand up to Trump—something which Biden who became her foil—at least temporarily—failed to do.
A group of fifteen racially and gender-mixed Iowa voters gathered at one of the TV studios was polled immediately after the debate as to who they considered the winner. Harris was the unanimous choice with but one exception.
This snapshot of public opinion may be inconsequential at this stage.
However it might be recalled that Barack Obama won the Iowa Democratic caucuses in 2008 beating seven opponents—the first black candidate ever to do so—which catapulted his meteoric rise to the White House.
Iowa and three other primaries precede California’s on March 3, 2020 when sixteen states will have selected a whopping 40% of the party’s delegates.
But it all starts in the Hawkeye State. Since 1976, Iowa picked six of the eventual Democratic nominees, only two of which became president—Jimmy Carter & Barack Obama.
Trump was defeated by the Texan, Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2016 Iowa Republican Caucus. Since 1976, Iowa has picked 4 eventual GOP nominees, but until Trump, only George W. Bush became president.
Harris can be expected to begin making many visits to Iowa. However the Californian’s immediate task will be defending the turf she took a big step toward gaining. Now she has to secure it which is no easy task.
The challenge becomes increasingly more difficult for the next debates in July when the contestant field will be whittled down with face-offs among the promising survivors.
Harris will still occupy center stage along with the young Indianan, Mayor, Pete Buttigieg who easily held his own and comes out of the neighboring Midwest heartland that will be one key to Democratic success.
While others had no trouble exceeding their time limits, Biden who occasionally appeared to be fumbling, somewhat astonishingly cut short three of his answers before the clock had expired with the words, “I guess my time is up.”
Perhaps not quite, but after a few more debates such as this one his front-runner status could be in jeopardy.