Harris shows she can take debate punch after Gabbard attack

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisPress: Another billionaire need not apply Saagar Enjeti dismisses Warren, Klobuchar claims of sexism New book questions Harris's record on big banks MORE’s (D-Calif.) campaign is regrouping after a tough debate in which she came under attack for the first time as a top contender in the 2020 race.

Harris took shots from those she’s chasing, such as former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFive landmark moments of testimony to Congress Democrats sharpen their message on impeachment Biden: 'I'm more of a Democrat from my shoe sole to my ears' than anyone else running MORE, as well as low polling candidates angling to stand out in the massive field, such as Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardNew Quinnipiac poll finds Biden leading in New Hampshire Gabbard lawyers demand retraction of Clinton's 'defamation' Krystal Ball praises former McConnell aide's historic win in Kentucky MORE (D-Hawaii).

ADVERTISEMENT

Harris has said that she knew she was entering a new level of scrutiny since vaulting into contention after attacking Biden at the first debate in June, but the reviews are mixed so far as to how she’s handled the new volley of attacks against her.

“With a lot of these individuals, you’re used to throwing punches and not getting hit back,” Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state representative and top Harris surrogate, told The Hill. “You gotta get punched in the jaw. What we found out though is Kamala doesn’t have a glass jaw. She’s still standing.”

Supporters are bracing for the first round of post-debate polls to see whether Harris’s momentum has stalled since the tough exchange with Gabbard, in which the Hawaii Democrat accused Harris of prosecutorial misconduct as attorney general of California.

Supporters say they’re not panicking, believing that Harris has cemented herself as a top tier candidate in the polls. They point to her strong fundraising numbers and energized base of supporters in key states, such as California and South Carolina.

“I think naturally, Gabbard may rise for the attention she gets from this, just like Harris got a boost from that night with Biden, and maybe Harris will naturally drop a little bit,” said Bob Mulholland, a Democratic National Committee member from California who supports Harris.

“But these are the normal ebbs and flows of having 20 people out there. After September, half of these people will be gone. Harris will be around, so as long as you do well in Houston and come out one of the top five candidates heading into February, that’s when the voters will decide,” he added, referring to the site of the September debate and the Iowa caucuses that will officially kick off the primary contest next year.

The searing criticism from Gabbard and other candidates at Wednesday night’s debate underscored the extent to which Harris has become a target in much the same vein as Biden, a reality that is due, at least in part, to her recent rise in the race.

Harris’s time as attorney general was long seen as a potential liability for her, particularly in the Black Lives Matter age.

But the surprise attack from Gabbard, and the direct and cutting nature of her remarks, turned out to be one of the defining moments of the second debate.

Gabbard accused Harris of locking up racial minorities for low-level drug offenses while laughing off her own marijuana use. And she accused Harris of keeping inmates imprisoned for cheap labor, while ignoring exculpatory evidence that might have freed death row inmates.

“This was worse for Kamala than her attack against Biden was for him,” said one Democratic strategist aligned with Biden.

The campaign is taking Gabbard’s attacks seriously, defending Harris’s record as attorney general while hammering Gabbard for her controversial foreign policy views and dismissing online criticism of Harris.

“People want to know that the next commander in chief has actually been in the business of prioritizing their safety. I’ve done that my entire career,” she told reporters on Thursday. “They absolutely want public safety, so I’m not going to shy away from that record at all.”

Harris also dismissed Gabbard’s criticism, saying that she’s polling at zero or 1 percent and desperate to make the next debate stage. And she called Gabbard an “apologist” for Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has used chemical weapons on his own people.

In an interview on Hill.TV, Gabbard fired back.

“It’s pathetic that when confronted with the facts and the truth about her record that she claims to be proud of, as a prosecutor as attorney general of California, all she can do is lob cheap smears,” she said.

Some Harris allies acknowledged that Gabbard’s attacks caught her off guard and that she struggled to perform in the same way she did in the first round of debates when she clashed with Biden over his opposition to school busing as a Delaware senator in the 1970s.

“It may have been a little unexpected for her,” Thomas McInerney, a San Francisco-based attorney and Harris fundraiser, said. “There was a little bit different of a vibe to this debate than the last one. I think it was harder for her to separate herself from the others in this one.”

But McInerney, who backed Biden’s presidential bid until pulling back his support in June, said that he thought Harris held up well during the confrontation, asserting that Gabbard’s attacks were not “really fair criticism at all” and that Harris “had a very good reputation” as a prosecutor.

“I don’t even know where Gabbard’s coming from,” he said. “In the long run I think her prosecutor background is going to be a strong selling point to inoculate herself from attacks from Trump and from the right. But she’s done a lot of progressive things as [district attorney] and at the state level.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Sellers, the Harris surrogate, said that part of Harris’s challenge on the debate stage owes to the time constraints – candidates were given only 30 seconds for rebuttals. At the same time, he said, it’s not always in the top tier candidates’ best interest to engage with lower-tier challengers.

“You get in somewhat of a dilemma where you don’t want to engage someone to your left who is that far down in your polls,” Sellers told The Hill. “You want to keep your fire and ire on Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFive landmark moments of testimony to Congress Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight Democrats sharpen their message on impeachment MORE and try to show distinction between you and other frontrunners.”

Progressive are eager to see how Harris defends her record going forward.

Harris is not the natural first choice for many on the left in a race that includes Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTech firms face skepticism over California housing response Press: Another billionaire need not apply Ex-Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick mulling 2020 run: report MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenBiden: 'I'm more of a Democrat from my shoe sole to my ears' than anyone else running Press: Another billionaire need not apply Saagar Enjeti dismisses Warren, Klobuchar claims of sexism MORE (D-Mass.), but liberal groups have not ruled her out as someone they could rally behind in opposition to Biden.

“Tulsi’s attack on Harris was one of the more brutal punches I’ve seen thrown at any debate in a Democratic primary,” said Neil Sroka, a strategist for the progressive group Democracy for America. “She raised a lot of important questions, and I’m not sure Sen. Harris has fully addressed the range and depth of those concerns ... It doesn’t doom her completely. Everyone knows that Kamala’s experience as a prosecutor is something that cuts both ways, especially in the world of criminal justice reform and where the Democratic Party is."

Sellers said that he expects Harris to eventually explain her prosecutorial record in more detail.

“One of the things that Sen. Harris will do is answer these questions,” he said. “The debate stage was a difficult place to do that.”