Campaign

Harris off to best start among Dems in race, say strategists, donors

Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) is off to the fastest start among Democrats who have already entered the 2020 presidential race, say party strategists and donors closely following the contest's early stages. 

Harris has trailed former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in a few polls, including a Monmouth University survey released earlier this month.

But she has surged ahead of the other contenders who are actually in the race - including Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass), Cory Booker (N.J.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.). 

And in Iowa, an Emerson College poll shows her only behind Biden among caucusgoers.

Neither Biden nor Sanders has entered the race, and the polls showing them at the top of the contest likely reflects their widespread name recognition. Biden served eight years as vice president to Barack Obama after a long career in the Senate, while Sanders ran a tough campaign against Hillary Clinton in 2016 for the party's presidential nomination.

Harris, in contrast, has not been on the national stage nearly as long. She was elected to the Senate in 2016 in a campaign that first brought her to national attention.

Democrats attribute her strong standing to a relatively seamless launch last month.

They say Harris largely beat her competitors to the punch in announcing a full-blown presidential campaign and capitalizing on the momentum which followed. 

"There's always been this motto, 'You have one day to launch and you have to get it right,' and Kamala crushed it," said Robert Wolf, a prominent Democratic donor. "It's the day that you have all the media buzz, the grass-roots excitement and to tell your story. That is the one day all eyes are on you and she hit out of the ballpark." 

Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist, added: "She differentiates herself with her impeccable timing."

"The others, unfair as it might seem, look like followers and like they are saying to themselves, 'Oh, I better get in now before she gets all the attention,' " Cardona said. "It doesn't mean that the others had bad launches, but it just means that she still stands out." 

Since announcing a White House bid last month on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Harris has built on that momentum. She raised $1.5 million in the first 24 hours, drew an arena-sized crowd to her launch speech in Oakland, Calif., and has generated enough media appearances - including a well-received CNN town hall - to keep her name at the epicenter of the 2020 conversation. 

Within just a couple of weeks, she headlined jam-packed fundraisers in New York and Los Angeles, attracting the likes of Hollywood executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and actress Eva Longoria - two of Obama's biggest supporters.  

"She was already the favorite of many, and her early success has solidified and grown that support," said Jon Vein, a major Democratic donor.  

Part of Harris's climb may also be attributed to the stumbles of some of her prominent opponents.

Warren has had some strong days since first signaling her run for the White House on Dec. 31, but she also hasn't been able to escape the headlines about her claims of Native American heritage, which have dogged her since before she launched her exploratory committee.

Klobuchar has faced scrutiny about her treatment of staff, while Gillibrand is still dealing with fallout, at least from some Democrats, from her public rebukes of former President Bill Clinton and former Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who resigned last year after he was accused of sexual misconduct.

"She has done incredibly well in the last few weeks but one can't help but wonder if she's done so well because her opponents have not," one Democratic strategist wondered aloud. "There really isn't a competitive race as far as I'm concerned. She's really blowing everyone else who's in this race so far out of the water." 

Harris's campaign hasn't been immune from possible missteps.

During the CNN town hall, Harris voiced support for a "Medicare for all" health care system that would eliminate private insurance, saying it was time to "move on."

"Well, listen, the idea is that everyone gets access to medical care, and you don't have to go through the process of going through an insurance company, having them give you approval, going through the paperwork, all of the delay that may require," she told CNN's Jake Tapper.  

"Who of us has not had that situation where you've got to wait for approval, and the doctor says, 'Well, I don't know if your insurance company is going to cover this.' Let's eliminate all of that. Let's move on."

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is considering his own run for the White House, and former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who is mulling a run as an independent, were among the political figures to criticize Harris.

Harris's office later noted that she has also co-sponsored legislation that would allow people to keep their private insurance while moving toward a single-payer system.

On the bright side, the CNN town hall got stellar ratings, creating another good public relations moment for Harris.

Earlier this week, she made new headlines when she acknowledged that she smoked pot in college.

"Listen, I think it gives a lot of people joy and we need more joy in this world," Harris said on "The Breakfast Club" radio show. 

While that position was popular with progressives, it showed that she has shifted on the issue since 2010 when her campaign manager said she "supports the legal use of medicinal marijuana but does not support anything beyond that."

This weekend, Harris is spending more time in South Carolina, where Harris allies say she can be competitive in the primaries. But she'll no doubt face stiff competition from Booker, who has already invested in staff and resources on the ground. 

In the coming weeks, she'll also head back to Iowa where she will spend two days crisscrossing the state. Harris allies say if she can be competitive in Iowa and New Hampshire, that will give her the momentum she needs heading into the rest of the primary, with delegate-rich California shortly thereafter. 

And Democrats say if the last month is any indication, she'll be a tough competitor going forward.

"She is being viewed by many as the full package: smart, commercial, organized," Wolf said. "I would not be surprised if she was the top fundraiser this quarter and viewed as a top 3 candidate."

- This report was updated at 9:52 a.m.

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