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Kamala Harris Tries to Break Through in the 2020 Race

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“This is not a game show where you’ve got a buzzer, and you should hit the buzzer, and you can win some money,” Harris told me over the phone last week. “I think we need to really agree that shouldn’t be the kind of incentives we’re having”—that “the pundits will be clapping and happy if, within 30 seconds, you answer the question that’s on the board.”

The problem for Harris, though, is that other people are winning the game. Pete Buttigieg has leapfrogged her in the polls, with both voters and the press drawn to his accessibility and constant off-the-cuff answers; Warren has been getting attention for her nonstop release of policy proposals; and other candidates have gotten noticed by making their own impromptu news.

Harris’s resistance to jumping into the news has meant that she can disappear for days, and sometimes weeks, from the headlines about the 2020 race. She’s been focusing on smaller meetings with advocates and activists—and, most of all, on fundraising, with lots of time spent flying back to her base of donors in California. When she sent Attorney General William Barr into a state earlier this month by asking him pointed questions at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, it was a reminder for even those paying close attention to the race: Oh, right, Kamala Harris is running too.

Some of her answers to questions she gets on the trail are short and easy. She would get rid of the entire tax bill Trump signed at the end of 2017, and she doesn’t approve of any of the tariffs he’s imposed. But when she hesitates, Harris argues, she’s not holding herself back—she’s showing where she really is.

“People shouldn’t confuse: Being quick with an opinion [doesn’t mean] that opinion isn’t necessarily a smart or well-thought-out one,” she said. “I prefer to have a smart, well-thought-out opinion on an issue than give a quick response to a question that’s presented, when I’ve not actually done the due diligence from hearing from whoever might be impacted from that position.”

Her team feels she’s stuck in a no-win situation: She’s characterized as boring if she doesn’t breathe fire at every policy question. But when she, for example, seemed to say that Medicare for All would lead to the end of private insurance companies, she’s tagged as a radical leftist.

On Wednesday morning in New Hampshire, she made clear that, while she’s heard the criticism, she doesn’t plan to change her approach. Asked at a town hall about imposing term limits on Supreme Court justices, along with other moves that would mean massive changes to judicial appointments, she told a voter, “I am open to that conversation.” She added, by way of explanation, “The bottom line is: We need a new president.”

Harris told me that her approach has been shaped by her years as the San Francisco district attorney and as the attorney general of California; lives were on the line, and financial markets could move based on her decisions. But it has also been shaped, she said, by her confidence that she’s going to be the president and her worry about following through on whatever positions she takes now. People who know Harris well say the roots of her approach, though, are in how careful and prepared she had to be to bust through the barriers she did—including becoming the first woman of color to serve as California attorney general, and the second black woman ever elected to the Senate.

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