DES MOINES — Iowans know what they like about Kamala Harris. They’ve seen it on TV: the sharp-tongued, compassionate, and courageous prosecutor that leaves them imagining an unflappable black woman on the debate stage next to Donald Trump.
But on a rainy Saturday in Des Moines, in front of 12,000 Iowans spread out on the grass for the Polk County Steak Fry, Harris was different.
“I’m at the Steak Fry!” she announced as she stepped onstage, her supporters cheering and lofting signs. She joked about the time on the clock, which at first she could not find, pausing her speech and scanning the waiting crowd. “There it is,” she said, spotting the time ticking down. She started to speak, then dropped a piece of paper onto the stage and bent to pick it up, trying to pin it to a hay bale in front of her to keep the note from flying off into the wind.
Harris was under pressure. Her presidential campaign had fallen into a dangerous pattern: after capturing the country’s attention with moments of prosecutorial brilliance, she had seen excitement about her candidacy soar, only to fall back to Earth.
With President Donald Trump teetering on the edge of possible impeachment, though, Harris has a clear opportunity. Kamala Harris the prosecutor is already back on Americans’ television screens and could be set for a prime role in a potential Senate impeachment trial.
The question is not whether Harris would have a viral moment in the fight to impeach Trump. It’s whether she could translate that, for the first time, into real support for her presidential run.
In Iowa last weekend, the roots of her campaign’s see-saw were clear: It was hard for voters to see Harris the prosecutor. Harris the presidential candidate was meandering and often indirect, struggling to present a strong argument for her own campaign.
Sometimes she captured crowds with a rousing speech; at other times, she circled back to stock phrases that fell flat with audiences, echoing many other candidates in the crowded Democratic field. She offered long, winding answers to questions. She seemed, occasionally, to teeter on exhaustion.
“The first time I saw her was before she was going to run, when she was asking questions in a hearing. And she was so powerful, I said, ‘I want that woman to run!’” said Berleen Wobeter, a former educator who came from Toledo, Iowa, to see Harris in Cedar Rapids, an hour’s drive away. “Somehow her power doesn't seem to be coming off like it should. And it makes me sad, very sad.”
What would Wobeter want Harris to do differently?
“I don't know — what brings that prosecutor out in her,” Wobeter said. “Whatever it is, I'd like to see that.”
In the days before the Steak Fry, Harris announced that she was pinning the hopes of her struggling presidential campaign directly on Iowa: She would “fucking move to Iowa,” as she was overheard telling another senator, a state her campaign had initially discounted in favor of South Carolina. In a strategy call earlier this month, her campaign’s communications director Lily Adams told reporters the campaign knew "we need to get her out there more in this last push to the caucus."
"She’s never run for president before," Adams said.
If Harris could do well in Iowa, the thought was, the fate of her campaign would change, offering a catalyst similar to the one that launched Barack Obama in 2008. But to win Iowa, Harris will have to beat Elizabeth Warren, who has taken the lead in the state on a surge of progressive energy, and Joe Biden, who is holding fast to the two demographics Harris badly needs: the party’s political moderates and its black base.
At the Steak Fry, Warren spoke to the huge, energetic crowd of “big structural change,” and Bernie Sanders of revolution. Pete Buttigieg, who has found surprising strength in Iowa, offered “generational change” and the story of his own personal investment, as a gay man from the center of the country, in the future. People knew the central takeaway from Beto O’Rourke's speech: He wanted to take away the country’s assault weapons.
Harris’s message was not as clear.
“I would suggest to you that what we need, both in terms of a winning strategy, but also in terms of leadership that is about truly strengthening our country based on our values and our long-standing commitment, is we need leadership that is prepared to unify our country around our common values, our common goals, our common aspirations, and experiences,” Harris told the crowd in Des Moines.
“We need to have a strategy that is a winning strategy, about saying that we have got to recognize the challenges before us as a nation and the world are big challenges about who we are, our definition, our standing, and our strength as a nation. And to meet those challenges it will not be about going back to the good old days, it will be about looking forward and taking on the challenges that meet us today and — the winning strategy is that the right thing to do is say that we will address the big challenges of our nation, the issues that wake people up in the middle of the night.”
While Harris’s campaign has embraced her prosecutorial past in recent months, it has also tried simultaneously to tack her toward the political center — backtracking on major issues, stumbling over others, and embracing sometimes muddy policies that cut a sharp contrast to the image as a clear, direct truth-teller that Harris built in the Senate.
At Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, two days before the Steak Fry, Harris spoke in a high-ceilinged gym beneath fluorescent lights, in front of a crowd of several hundred. It was her first day in Iowa in more than a month: She had spent August and half of September, a month when many of her competitors were on the road in early voting states, in a blitz of fundraisers.
Harris drew frequent applause from the crowd in a speech that has become her regular stump: a litany of condemnations of Donald Trump, followed by appeals for unity and a focus on “the things that keep people up at night,” like health and the economy.
She circled back to the same phrase, “the vast majority of us as Americans have so much more in common than what separates us,” three times in the space of several minutes. “That fact is the fuel of our campaign,” she said.
“She had that moment, that great moment, [when] she came out with that brilliant line in the first debate. But her performance in the last debate — I mean, she's clearly running herself into the ground,” said William James Lusher, a retired Cedar Rapids resident who came to see Harris speak at Kirkwood. “I mean, she's exhausted tonight, listen to her voice. You can tell. But she's gonna do this whether it kills her.”
Lusher is a fan of Harris’s: “She's giving it 110%, which she does to everything she's ever done,” he said of her campaign. “She's had to in order to get done the incredible things she's already gotten done.”
In Iowa last year, as she tested the waters of a presidential campaign, Harris focused on a theme of “speaking truths” — first among them the declaration that “racism is real in this country. Sexism is real, homophobia is real, anti-Semitism is real. Let’s speak those truths.”
Harris has dropped those “truths” from her stump speech, replacing them with a direct condemnation of Donald Trump: a “prosecution,” as her campaign now frames it. But she ends the same way, with a call for unity.
It’s a sign that Harris’s campaign has recognized her central appeal to Democratic voters: not just a truth-teller, but a prosecutor.
“She’s planning on making the affirmative case to get us out of this hellscape,” Adams said on the call with reporters.
Harris has gone across the country in recent months calling for someone to “prosecute the case against Donald Trump.” Recently, she’s added an even more explicit line, laying out her case and closing by saying “it’s going to take a prosecutor to do it.”
It is a line that almost always generates loud applause. If Trump is impeached and faces trial in the Senate, Harris would once again have a national spotlight to hammer the president and his allies on national TV. In the last week, with the start of the impeachment inquiry, Harris has shown up across cable news to renew her case against the president, and clips of her past questioning of Attorney General William Barr have again gone viral.
Harris’s go-to applause line over the summer can now act as an impeachment rallying cry: “Dude’s gotta go.”
But Harris has yet to translate her TV appearances or many viral moments in Senate hearings, widely praised by Democrats, into solid support for her presidential candidacy.
On the campaign trail, Harris’s “prosecution” of Trump sounds a lot like what her Democratic competitors are using against the president, accusing Trump of putting “children in cages,” “fanning the flames of hatred,” and “conducting foreign policy by Tweet.”
And Harris’s case for herself — and against her Democratic rivals — has sometimes been fuzzy. In Iowa last weekend, Harris added lines to her stump speech aimed, not so subtly, at Warren and Sanders, dismissing arguments over “ideology” as irrelevant to peoples’ lives.
“People are saying, ‘Address the things that wake me up in the middle of the night, or that have me up at midnight figuring out how I’m going to make it all work,’” Harris told a crowd in Waterloo. “And so those are the issues that I’m focused on, guys.”
In addressing the issues at the core of her campaign, Harris has sought to find a middle ground between the party’s far left and political moderates like Biden, recognizing that her best chance for the nomination lies with more centrist voters. She was more closely aligned, at first, with political progressives, embracing Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and “starting from scratch” on ICE. But she is now treading more lightly on many of those stances.
In some ways, voters are getting the message: As she traveled through the state last weekend, Iowans praised Harris for her bipartisanship and her centrism, two things that few people noted about her when she visited the state a year ago.
“That's what I'm in favor of, that she's more moderate,” said Karen Curtis, a retired hotel worker in Waterloo. “We need a more moderate candidate to beat Trump.”
But her more moderate policies have also, at times, put Harris on unsteady footing, leaving her defending herself from attacks from the left and right or equivocating on positions where other candidates have taken clear stances. The most striking example of that came this spring: Asked in a town hall about whether current prisoners should have voting rights, Buttigieg said no; Sanders said yes. Harris said, “I think we should have that conversation.” (She later said murderers and terrorists should not be able to vote from prison.)
Those moments have cut against her image as a straight-talking prosecutor. After she eviscerated Joe Biden on a debate stage over his past opposition to federally mandated busing — among her campaign’s sharpest, most cogent moments — she seemed, within days, to equivocate over her own position on busing. She eventually called it a “tool among many that should be considered.”
Then there is Harris’s health care stance, which began with repeated public stumbles over whether she wanted to eliminate private, employer-based health insurance, a component of Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill that many Democrats worry will be unpopular with voters.
After spending the start of her campaign stumping on Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill — which would put all Americans onto a single, government-run health-care plan, and which she cosponsors in the Senate — Harris said she had changed her mind and no longer supported it. She released her own health care plan instead, calling it Medicare for All, too. It kept some parts of Sanders’ plan and jettisoned others, creating a mishmash that would eliminate employer-based health insurance but allow private insurance companies to offer their own Medicare plans.
Harris’s not-quite Medicare for All appealed to Iowa voters. It also confused them.
Most Democrats who oppose Sanders’ Medicare for All bill, like Joe Biden and Buttigieg, promise voters they won’t be forced onto a government plan against their will — they can keep their employer-based insurance, they say, if they like it. Harris can’t make that promise. Instead, she talks more generally about “not taking away your choice” — a reference to the fact that people can choose among private and public government plans.
Voters said they liked Harris’s promises of “choice” in health care. But several did not understand that her version of Medicare for All would still mean ending employer-based health insurance, or that union members would not be able to keep the insurance they’d bargained for.
Harris is hardly the only Democrat to stumble over health care; Warren has also been criticized for evasive answers to questions about whether Medicare for All would cause tax increases for middle-class families.
But for Harris, the stumbles fit into a longstanding pattern, one that runs counter to what Democrats hope Harris can be in a time of impeachment: a growing image of her as a cautious politician and unclear communicator. Her health care plan left her on the defensive in the second debate, fending criticism from both Sanders and Biden, who pointed out that Harris "has had several plans so far."
After Harris avoided a question in a CNN town hall about Warren’s proposal to forgive most student loan debt, saying only that it was an “important conversation to have,” she released a plan for historically black colleges that included student loan forgiveness clause so wildly complicated that it was heavily mocked online. She promised to forgive the student loan debt of Pell Grant recipients who started businesses in disadvantaged communities for three years — but only up to $20,000.
This week, Harris said she would, in fact, back much broader debt forgiveness for those making less than $100,000 annually.
Larry Ring, an Omaha resident who came to the Polk County Steak Fry, put Harris among his top three candidates, along Warren and Buttigieg. But he finds Harris’s propensity not to answer questions, he said, “frustrating.”
“It's a good campaign, it's fine. Obviously the more attention she gets the better. But when she gets that attention, I don't feel like she's done a ton with it,” Ring said. “We like her because she's a prosecutor, and we think she's —”
“Right!” Ring’s wife, Rachel, cut in. “That’s why we like her.”
“She's very smart, knows how to present an argument. I wish she would present the argument in a way that's clearer,” Ring said. “People choose presidents based on emotion. Say what you want about plans, say what you want about logic. People choose based on emotion — if they didn't, we wouldn't have Trump. And I don't feel like she makes that emotional connection.”
“She should,” Ring said. “She's got all the right ingredients.”