Kamala Harris' big moment

Vice President Kamala Harris arrives to speak at a campaign rally Tuesday in Las Vegas. Harris announced the launch of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders for Biden-Harris, a national program to mobilize voters.

Vice President Kamala Harris arrives to speak at a campaign rally Tuesday in Las Vegas. Harris announced the launch of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders for Biden-Harris, a national program to mobilize voters. (Steve Marcus, Las Vegas Sun via Associated Press)


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LAS VEGAS — Vice President Kamala Harris has visited Nevada before. She's been to the Western battleground state five times this year alone and 14 since assuming the vice presidency in 2021. Her last visit was June 28, less than 24 hours after President Joe Biden's debate performance against former President Donald Trump sent Democrats spiraling.

But on Tuesday, Harris' task was different than her previous visits: Not only would she tout the administration's accomplishments, but she also had to restore faith that Biden is, indeed, the right person to lead the ticket.

She made the same pitch on June 28. But the landscape was different. Seven sitting House Democrats hadn't yet called on Biden to drop out. Senators weren't privately plotting whether they should do the same. Biden wasn't exhausting every possible outlet — speeches, interviews, closed-door meetings and letters to lawmakers — to emphasize he wouldn't budge. And Harris' name hadn't yet floated to the forefront of an unlikely, but nonetheless persistent, hypothetical in which she, not Biden, leads the Democratic ticket in 2024.

Harris did her best to assuage concerns on Tuesday. In front of a crowd of several hundred Las Vegas-area supporters — cheering the launch of a new outreach effort to Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders — she acknowledged that they'd been "knocked down" by the debate.

"We always knew this election would be tough," she said. "And the past few days have been a reminder that running for president of the United States is never easy."

She paused, allowing a brief moment of silence. "But the one thing we know about our president, Joe Biden, is that he is a fighter," she said. The crowd roared its approval.

Harris' increasing role

Amid the Democratic soul-searching in the days following the June 27 debate, the Biden-Harris campaign has worked to silence any doubt that the president will stay in the race — and Harris herself has led the charge. Last week, a Biden-Harris campaign co-chair admitted Harris would be "increasing her role." She's subsequently zigzagged the country, stopping in California, Louisiana, North Carolina and Nevada twice since the debate. Over the past week, Harris has made more public appearances than the president.

Harris' job? To convince wary voters of Biden's track record and his fitness to keep leading. But in the process, Biden-skeptical Democrats are getting a sharper look at a younger alternative — and they like what they see.

"I think Biden should step down and let (Harris) have it," said Mildred Simpson, a Summerlin, Nevada, resident who attended Tuesday's event. "He's a good man who has done good things. He should end with his legacy intact."

If Biden were to drop out, Harris would be the most likely alternative. An anonymous memo — titled "Unburdened by What Has Been: The Case for Kamala" — is ricocheting around Democratic circles this week. She could take credit for the Biden administration's wins, the document says, because they were her victories, too. She has "democratic legitimacy," since millions of primary voters already backed her as part of the ticket. She could access the war chest of Biden-Harris donations, which no other candidate could.

But the hypotheticals highlight a stark reality: Should Democrats ditch Biden and nominate Harris, they still face an uphill battle in defeating Trump. While one recent poll shows Harris running ahead of Trump by one point, most show her trailing (some by as many as nine points). Biden's approval rating is low; Harris' is lower. And changing horses less than four months ahead of Election Day would be a gamble: Only a third of voters think Harris would win if she were the Democratic nominee.

In Las Vegas, some attendees brushed off the concerns. Lusana Gee, a resident of a Las Vegas suburb, said she likes Harris' "vision" for America. "She's younger and more energetic (than Biden)," she said. "She has more potential: We already know all about the other two (Biden and Trump)."

Others were less optimistic that switching candidates this late would fare well. "I want a ticket that can win," said Nathan Martinez, a canvasser with Progressive Victory. "I'm not convinced that Kamala would fare any better than Biden."

In Utah, Harris won admirers

On June 28, Harris stood in a crowded living room in Park City, her back against a large, stone fireplace. Over 200 Democratic donors had packed into Nancy and Mark Gilbert's Snyderville Basin mansion, some peering over the balcony overhead. Less than 24 hours had passed since the debate. Harris acknowledged that the president had "a slow start" the night prior, but quickly pivoted to the work she — and he — had done in office. She outlined their investment in infrastructure. She spoke about their climate successes in the Inflation Reduction Act. She detailed their economic accomplishments.

"The list of accomplishments reads like a CVS receipt," she said. "It just goes on and on."

After the event, Mark Gilbert made up his mind: If Biden drops out, Harris should be the nominee.

"I have been incredibly impressed by her," said Gilbert, the former U.S. ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa. "If President Biden decided to do this — and as I said, it's 100% his decision — I think she would be a formidable replacement."

But even some of Harris' strongest supporters oppose the idea of Biden hand-picking his successor. One staffer from her 2020 campaign said an "automatic coronation" would be "a grave mistake." Rep. Jim Clyburn, who said after the debate he'd back a Harris ticket "if Biden ain't there," has since expressed support for a "mini-primary" among delegates before the Democratic National Convention in mid-August. James Carville, a longtime Democratic consultant, called for a series of town halls to allow for open dialogue between candidates, including Harris, and give Americans a look at Democrats' "staggeringly talented new generation of leaders."

Even Biden seems to harbor some doubts about Harris' capabilities. Early in his term, Biden reportedly told a confidant that Harris was "a work in progress." By repeatedly declaring himself as the "best person to defeat Donald Trump," Biden implies that Harris is not — even as Biden sinks in the polls.

Finding Harris' niche in a legislatively successful, yet widely unpopular, administration has been the largest challenge. The administration has slowly given Harris a larger role, and some administration officials, including Biden's former chief of staff, have wondered aloud whether they should have given her a larger platform earlier.

This year alone, she's gone on 60 trips across the U.S. and the world. She's interacted with over 150 world leaders since taking office in 2021. "She has shown she can build relationships on the world stage," said Gilbert. "As a former diplomat, I see the value of that."

But her most visible assignment — leading the administration's response to immigration — has become one of the Biden White House's least popular initiatives.

In recent months, Harris has shifted to become the administration's de facto spokesperson on abortion. It's a more comfortable fit for Harris, the first female vice president in U.S. history, and a better political issue for Democrats: Nearly two-thirds of voters nationally say abortion should be always or mostly legal.

The Biden-Harris campaign's mission is to pitch Harris the same way they did the first time: as a competent and historic vice president. This cycle, blue America views a trail of accomplishments behind her; red America views her as gaffe-prone and incapable. But in a twist of irony, the larger role she takes on in bolstering Biden, the more some Democrats want to see her at the top of the ticket.

"I love Biden's policies," said Judy Fisher, an attendee at Tuesday's event. "I'm just scared he won't get votes because he's old." Fisher smiled and nodded. "It's good we have Kamala up next."

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Samuel Benson
Samuel Benson is the national political correspondent for the Deseret News. He covers the 2024 presidential election. He worked as the lead researcher on two best-selling books: “Romney: A Reckoning,” by McKay Coppins; and “Barkley: A Biography,” by Timothy Bella. He studied sociology and Spanish at Brigham Young University. When not writing or reading, Benson enjoys cycling and hiking in Utah’s beautiful outdoors.

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