Harris campaign faces crossroads

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisKavanaugh impeachment push hits Capitol buzz saw Mark Mellman: The most important moment in history? Biden leads in new national poll, Warren close behind in second place MORE (D-Calif.) energized Democratic fundraisers over the weekend with her enthusiasm and prescription for defeating President TrumpDonald John TrumpJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency White House fires DHS general counsel: report Trump to cap California trip with visit to the border MORE, according to donors who attended her events. 

“I'm convinced she's the next president of the United States,” one longtime Democratic fundraiser told The Hill after attending a sold-out gathering at director Spike Lee’s home on Martha's Vineyard, the Massachusetts island where dozens of Democratic power brokers spend the summer. The fundraiser was one of three events held for the senator over the weekend.  

Other donors echoed the sentiment, praising Harris’s exuberance and ability to excite people in the room.

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The former California attorney general has long been seen as a candidate with crossover appeal who can win over moderates and liberals alike and who has the ability to catch fire in the race. 

But her campaign has lost steam nearly two months after an electric performance at the first Democratic debates, strategists and political observers say. 

Five polls taken after the second round of Democratic debates put her in the single digits, consistently behind former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency 2020 candidates keep fitness on track while on the trail Mark Mellman: The most important moment in history? MORE and Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenKavanaugh impeachment push hits Capitol buzz saw Mark Mellman: The most important moment in history? Katie Pavlich: The Democrats' desperate do-overs MORE (Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency 2020 candidates keep fitness on track while on the trail Mark Mellman: The most important moment in history? MORE (I-Vt.).  

As a result, Harris’s trip to an enclave of the Democratic base at the height of the summer vacation season comes with her campaign at something of a crossroads. 

The daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father, Harris has an inspiring background and life story that seems to speak to the times. 

She has strengths that compare favorably to all of her main rivals, from her age, her ethnic background and even her state: She’s a Californian to the core, growing up in a state that is now a bastion of Democratic power. She’s a relatively new face to the national political stage, but she also has experience as a former attorney general and now senator. 

Yet Harris also has some weakness, some of which strategists say have been exacerbated by her campaign to date. 

She’s positioned herself as both a progressive and a moderate, causing her to be viewed as “inauthentic,” said one Democratic strategist. 

“I still don’t think anyone really understands why she’s running,” the strategist said. “And if you’re running for president and you don’t know why you're running, no one else will either.” 

Earlier this month, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver said Harris “seems to be stuck in between Joe Biden, on the one hand, and Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders on her other more left-leaning hand.”

“And that’s starting to show up in the numbers,” Silver said. 

He pointed to a Quinnipiac Poll which showed that “there’s no single group of Democrats—say wealthy or young or black” among whom Harris is polling at higher than 10 percent.” 

The large field, which includes two dozen candidates, has also made it tough for Harris, political observers say.

“It's so hard in a field of two dozen to capture attention on a relatively regular basis and if you don't have that attention you tend to drift downward,” said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University. “And really it's happened to almost everyone.”

Jillson said while Harris had her breakout moment in the first debate, when she challenged Biden’s opposition to federal busing, the electorate’s “second sense of it was more mixed.” 

A Harris campaign spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. 

Another strategist, who is not attached to any of the campaigns, said Harris has suffered because she’s been “very cautious with her approach” drawing comparisons to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP struggles with retirement wave Overnight Energy: Trump to revoke California's tailpipe waiver | Democrats propose bill to revoke Trump endangered species rollback | Trump officials finalize rule allowing fewer inspectors at pork plants Mark Mellman: The most important moment in history? MORE’s cautious campaign in 2016. 

Basil Smikle, who served as the executive director of the New York State Democratic Party and is a former aide to Clinton, said Harris has been unable to overcome the initial perception of her candidacy.

“To her detriment, many voters initially viewed Harris as a good VP pick for someone like Biden and she didn’t have the built-in national constituency that Biden, Warren or Sanders possessed,” Smikle said. 

But Smikle said there’s time for Harris to recover. 

“She’s well-established in the top tier of candidates and benefits from any slippage in Biden’s black voters and redistribution of support when others drop out of the race,” he said, adding that as of now, “Harris has the money to stay competitive through the early states and perhaps until super Tuesday when her home state of California gets to vote.”  

Another factor that could work in Harris’s favor: Biden’s recent verbal gaffes. 

“His lead is a bit tenuous,” Jillson said.  “And once you get below him there are negatives with Sanders and Warren with some people who think they’re too far left. 

“What that means for Kamala Harris is be as solid as you can be to always be there for a second look,” he added. “Some people that look beyond Biden and see Bernie and Elizabeth Warren, will keep looking.”