WASHINGTON (AP) — She swaggered, she jabbed, she inspired. She even joked.
Anyone looking for a glimpse of what Vice President Kamala Harris could bring to the campaign trail would have found it this week at Howard University, where she headlined a rally for reproductive rights. After two years of tightly scripted, uneven performances that often dismayed Democrats and cheered Republicans, Harris is looser, more forceful and more willing to speak off the cuff following her trip to Africa a month ago.
“That is the vice president that America is going to get a chance to get to know for the first time,” said Laphonza Butler, a former adviser to Harris who leads EMILY’s List.
Now Harris, the first woman and person of color in her position, will be put to the test as President Joe Biden seeks a second term. Although vice presidents are rarely decisive in reelection efforts, Harris is poised to be an exception. Not only is she leading the charge on Democrats’ most potent issue, the battle over abortion rights, she’s the running mate for the oldest president in history, increasing scrutiny over whether she’s ready to step into the top job if necessary.
It’s an issue that Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, raised on Wednesday in an interview with Fox News.
“If you vote for Joe Biden, you really are counting on a President Harris,” Haley said. “Because the idea that he would make it until 86 years old” — the age Biden would be at the end of a second term — “is not something that I think is likely.”
Harris’ mission until Election Day will be energizing the voters that Democrats most need — specifically women, people of color and young people — while sustaining what will likely be an unrelenting barrage of Republican attacks.
“Vice presidential candidates, if they’re going to make a difference, they’re going to make it at the margin,” said Joel Goldstein, a historian of the vice presidency. “But if you look at our recent history, a lot of our presidential elections have been decided at the margins.”
Harris’ appearance at her alma mater Howard University on Tuesday night, the same day that Biden announced his reelection bid, was a first look of how she’ll approach the campaign. Her focus on abortion echoed her message during the midterm elections, but was even more barbed than usual as she targeted “extremists” she accused of taking away people’s rights.
“Don’t get in our way because if you do, we’re going to stand up, we’re going to organize and we’re going to speak up and we’re going to say we’re not having that, we’re not playing that!” Harris said.
Addressing herself to “so-called leaders” who want to restrict abortion, Harris told them to “open your medicine cabinet in the privacy of your bathroom, in the privacy of your home. I wonder what’s sitting up in there.”
The crowd roared with laughter. “You don’t want me getting in your business, do you?” she said.
Harris linked efforts to restrict abortion to Republican attempts to tighten rules for voting and limit what can be taught in schools.
“Understand what’s at play,” she said. “You can’t sleep on this.”
Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster, said Harris is “probably better positioned to connect with, in an authentic way, that critical emerging cohort of the American electorate that we are absolutely positively dependent on to win a majority.”
Not everyone has felt that way, and she’s faced chatter from the sidelines over whether Biden should replace her as vice president. She consistently polls worse than Biden, whose own numbers are underwater.
In an AP-NORC poll conducted in January, 43% of U.S. adults had a favorable opinion of Biden, and 36% said the same about Harris. Among Democrats, Biden was at 78% and Harris was at 67%, while 10% said they didn’t know enough about Harris to have an opinion.
However, Harris featured prominently in Biden’s announcement video — walking alongside the president, embracing first lady Jill Biden, taking a selfie with a supporter and more.
Biden’s campaign website is topped by the names “Biden Harris,” and a pop-up fundraising solicitation includes a picture of the two leaders smiling together. Biden’s Twitter account shared the same photo on Tuesday night, adding the caption “in this together.”
“I was really put off by all the prognostication about whether she was a drag on the ticket,” said Mini Timmaraju, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “She’s the biggest asset.”
Harris’ portfolio as vice president changed with last year’s Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that legalized abortion nationwide. Although she had previously been assigned thorny issues with little political upside, such as stemming migration from Central America, Harris swiftly embraced a new role as the administration’s most ardent defender of reproductive rights.
When a copy of the decision was leaked, Harris reviewed it with a small circle of aides in a West Wing office. “How dare they?” she kept repeating, according to a member of her staff at the time who requested anonymity to discuss the private conversation.
The phrase was swiftly included in a previously scheduled speech that night. Outrage over abortion helped Democrats limit their losses in the midterm elections, and the party expects it to remain a focus for voters.
“It’s going to be a major mobilizing issue,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who has worked with Biden. “Republicans keep doing things to keep the issue alive.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, recently signed a state ban on abortions after six weeks. Women would have more time to get an abortion in cases involving rape or incest, but they would need to provide documentation such as a restraining order or police report.
Erin Perrine, a spokesperson for Never Back Down, a super PAC supporting DeSantis, scoffed at the idea that Harris would be helpful to Biden’s reelection chances.
“She’s not a good messenger,” she said. “She is prone to not only stepping on the message, but putting out word salad answers, and then when she gets uncomfortable, getting into a laughing fit.”
Judging by the poll numbers, Perrine said “you have two people that Democrats don’t want running for president and vice president.”
Former President Donald Trump, who is running for another term, suggested in a recent interview with Newsmax that running mates will ultimately be irrelevant in the campaign.
“There’s never been a vice president that’s done anything for the election. In other words, they vote for the one person,” he said. “I don’t think vice presidents have any impact at all on the vote.”
However, Trump said, “It’s such an important position. If something happens, that’s going to be your president.”
Democrats rely on Black women in elections, and Harris’ support was evident during a February event at Georgia Tech University in Atlanta. Although the vice president had come to talk about the administration’s energy policy, the crowd was eager to discuss their support for her as a barrier-breaking woman.
“In her own way, as a female, as an African American, she is stepping out,” said Camille Zeigler, a 65-year-old retired educator. “What’s happening is she’s not stepping out in the way that society wants her to step out.”
Zeigler said people want to put Harris in a box as “an angry Black woman or a mad Black woman or a Black woman with an attitude.”
Instead, Zeigler said, Harris answers with “grace” and “poise,” providing “a model for other African American women.”
Beverly Rice, a 65-year-old who runs a nonprofit focused on literacy, celebrated Harris’ ascension after a history of Black women being close to power — but not holding it.
“It’s about time,” she said. “We’ve been building America forever.”
Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Atlanta, and Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.