Kamala Harris takes center stage in Biden reelection campaign’s rapid response to GOP

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks about reproductive rights during an event in Washington, Friday, June 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)(AP/Susan Walsh)
(CNN) — Gathered at the vice president’s residence at the Naval Observatory last weekend, a group of aides and advisers to Kamala Harris marveled at what they had just pulled off.

They did not even have a venue lined up when they started reaching out to supporters about attending a quickly arranged speech in Jacksonville, Florida, the next day. But by Friday afternoon, Harris had delivered a fiery speech that was well received among Democrats, blasting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for the state’s new curriculum standards on Black history and expressing concern that Republicans wanted to “replace history with lies.” That set off a week of responses from the governor, which his opponents have used as ongoing fodder for attacks.

So last Monday, Harris aides started planning her trip to Iowa for four days later: a discussion on reproductive rights in a state where Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds had just signed a new ban on abortions after six weeks. (A state judge has since put the law on hold.) There were many of the same lines, including her riff on so-called leaders, but now on another topic that President Joe Biden’s aides are eager to highlight Republican positions on. And instead of speaking from behind a podium, Harris sat in a comfortable chair in front of a packed room of women at Drake University.

The timing – hours before the leading GOP presidential candidates gathered in Des Moines for a marquee fundraising dinner – was no mistake.

Aides and advisers are already workshopping ideas for the next quickly targeted and arranged appearance.

Growing her profile

This is a shift for a vice president whose aides have often complained of her being left out of the spotlight and without support by many in the president’s inner circle. Now there is a conscious effort by both Biden and Harris aides to build her up.

Harris has been quietly noting how other Democrats, including her friend and sometimes rival for attention California Gov. Gavin Newsom, have grabbed the national spotlight by swinging at Republicans aggressively. Aides say she has also been watching the news out of the Republican presidential race and telling Biden aides she wants to be seen as fighting against extremism.

“This is moment where I do believe there is a full-on attack against hard-won freedoms, but we have power,” Harris said in Iowa.

Two years into wrestling with the ambiguities of her job responsibilities and facing questions about how she spends her days, Harris is embracing what comes with being the administration’s No. 2. There are fewer can’t-move meetings on her schedule than there are for the president. Fewer logistics are required to get her around the country. The security threshold is much lower for having traffic rerouted around her motorcade, or for protecting wherever she goes on the ground.

Biden aides see their path to victory next year rooted in large part in connecting with Black voters, women, young people and other groups that tend to respond warmly to Harris. Her increased public presence – speaking out on issues such as race, reproductive rights and guns – is part of a broader strategy overseen by Biden’s senior advisers and coordinated by campaign aides that is also about deliberately keeping the president mostly out of the direct fray until at least early next year.

“These are all issues that resonate with the core constituencies we need to turn out in 2024. They are also issues that she is uniquely well positioned to speak to, and that motivate our base,” a Biden campaign official said. “She’s in the center of this three-circle Venn diagram.”

A bonus: Because these are technically official government events, they are a way to have taxpayers, rather than a campaign still bulking up its finances, foot the bill.

And when she touches down, Harris can drive almost as much attention as the president. Sometimes, given the topics and her profile, even more.

“Her presence made this a national story – which it should have been regardless,” Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried said of Harris’ speech in Jacksonville on the state’s new standards for teaching Black history, which, according to a document posted to the state’s Department of Education website, require instruction for middle schoolers to include “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

Biden aides lapped up the response and the series of events it set off, including DeSantis accusing Rep. Byron Donalds – a Black Republican from Florida who backs former President Donald Trump – of being a shill for Harris, and Trump aides firing back at DeSantis in Donalds’ defense. Donalds said later he disagreed with Harris, stating that his issue was with “one line” in the Black history curriculum. Michigan Rep. John James and Texas Rep. Wesley Hunt – who, like Donalds, are Black Republicans who have endorsed Trump – also criticized DeSantis over the line about slavery in Florida’s new curriculum standards.

Presidential candidates have been pushed to weigh in, too. South Carolina’s Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, responded to a question on the subject by discussing what he called the devastation of slavery and adding, “I would hope that every person in our country – and certainly running for president – would appreciate that.”

Even people who were already Harris fans say they have been impressed by what they have been seeing out of her in this new approach.

“It felt like a new Kamala had arrived into the sphere from the White House,” said Jasmine Burney-Clark, the founder of the Florida Black political group Equal Ground, reflecting on Harris’ Jacksonville speech.

Burney-Clark said she was struck both by the lack of the usual stilted teleprompter feel to Harris’ speech and by how the vice president engaged with a small group about the path forward on the issue ahead of her remarks.

Even after multiple meetings and events with Harris in recent years, Burney-Clark said, “It was not someone I felt like I had seen before.

‘People were inspired’

The proof of concept that Harris and her aides are using is April’s quickly put-together trip to Nashville, where she delivered an impassioned speech after Tennessee Republicans expelled two Black Democratic state legislators who had protested on the state House floor against inaction on gun control following a mass shooting in the city.

The lawmakers’ expulsion – and the sparing of one of their White colleagues who had also protested – was already all over the local and national press that week, but Harris’ arrival brought a different level of attention. It also provided a different sense for the activists on the ground about why they should stay involved and believe in the Democratic leadership out of Washington.

“People were inspired by what they heard. They were motivated by what they heard. It brought some sense of revival,” state Rep. Justin Jones, one of the two expelled (and since reinstated) lawmakers, told CNN. “It gave us some more flames to what was already burning here.”

Harris has had more stops scheduled on what her office is calling her “summer conference tour,” including at the NAACP convention this past Saturday in Boston and an Everytown for Gun Safety event in Chicago in mid-August. In between, though, are many days that can be filled in with less-planned trips – Harris herself, according to an aide, was the one who told staff to get her to Jacksonville while flying on Air Force Two to Indiana for another event the day before.

To date, Harris’ role in the reelection campaign has been mostly as a fundraising draw, with multiple people involved telling CNN that she has been in high demand.

But stepping out more publicly also inevitably makes Harris more of a target for Republican attacks – most of which have seized on both Biden’s age and the criticism that the vice president is out of touch. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has so far been the one leading that charge. Haley warned an Iowa crowd earlier this month, “We can’t afford a President Kamala Harris – I will say that over and over again.”

But for disaffected Democrats looking for leaders to leap into fights, Burney-Clark said, Harris is important as a different kind of lightning rod.

“People are untethered. They’re unenthusiastic and uninterested in electoral politics,” Burney-Clark said. “Hope is something people always hold on to. Inspiration is something people always hold on to.”

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