Kamala Harris can deliver a punch — we'll soon see if she can take one

Kamala Harris can deliver a punch — we'll soon see if she can take one
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California Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisBiden leads 2020 pack in congressional endorsements Harris on 2020 endorsement: 'I am not thinking about it right now' Panel: Is Kamala Harris a hypocrite for mulling a Joe Biden endorsement? MORE has surged in the polls since she took on front-runner Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump denies telling Bolton Ukraine aid was tied to investigations Former senior Senate GOP aide says Republicans should call witnesses Title, release date revealed for Bolton memoir MORE for his past positions on racial issues. Earlier, as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, she eviscerated Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham Barr DOJ says surveillance of Trump campaign adviser Page lacked evidence Senators press DHS over visa approval for Pensacola naval base shooter Democrats sharpen case on second day of arguments MORE on his handling of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSchiff: Trump acquittal in Senate trial would not signal a 'failure' Jeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay MORE's report and for always accommodating President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump denies telling Bolton Ukraine aid was tied to investigations Former senior Senate GOP aide says Republicans should call witnesses Title, release date revealed for Bolton memoir MORE.

Harris displayed her considerable rhetorical skills as a prosecutor; she was California Attorney General for six years and earlier district attorney of San Francisco.

With success comes a spotlight, scrutiny of her sometimes vague and vacillating positions on issues, and questions about her calling card: her prosecutorial record.

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Sen. Harris is now herself a target.

How she holds up — faltering like other surge candidacies such as Democrat John Edwards and Republican Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiBolton book alleges Trump tied Ukraine aid freeze to Biden investigations: NYT Trump questions why NPR exists after Pompeo clashes with reporter Cotton: Democrats are 'upset that their witnesses haven't said what they want them to say' MORE, or rising to the challenge like Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaButtigieg: America 'united in mourning' Kobe Bryant's death Obama mourns 'heartbreaking' loss of Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna 'The worst news': Political world mourns loss of Kobe Bryant MORE — is a big deal.

Harris is one of four or five candidates who has a realistic chance at the nomination. More than any of the two dozen aspirants, she lights up a room.

She has the potential to bridge the party's divides: not as left wing as Senators Bernie SandersBernie SandersPoll: Sanders leads Biden by 9 points in Iowa Poll: Biden leads in Iowa ahead of caucuses The Memo: Impeachment dominates final Iowa sprint MORE (I-Vt.) or Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenPoll: Sanders leads Biden by 9 points in Iowa Poll: Biden leads in Iowa ahead of caucuses The Memo: Impeachment dominates final Iowa sprint MORE (D-Mass.), but not an establishment Washington insider — young enough, 54, to claim generational change, but sufficiently seasoned. While trailing the other front-runners in fund-raising, she has more political endorsements than anyone other than Biden.

An erratic campaign performance however, has sown doubts. Ideologically she seems to be looking over her left shoulder. It's dubious she can outdo Sanders or Warren on that score, and it's dicey in a general election.

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Harris initially endorsed a government-run single-payer health care system. She then backtracked on whether she'd eliminate private insurance. At the debate she raised her hand in support of giving up private insurance, later saying she misunderstood the question. She plans to clarify her position on whether she wants to build on or kill Obamacare. That's vexing at this stage, as this issue has dominated American politics and was central in last year's election.

At a New Hampshire town hall, Bernie Sanders advocated giving imprisoned felons, even murderers and rapists, the vote. Asked if she agreed, Harris lamely replied, “I think we should have that conversation.” She should have said of course not, while noting the racial inequities in the American penal system, while reaffirming that ex-cons who've paid their due should be given the franchise, which in November 65 percent of Floridians voted to do. She could have railed against Republicans for trying to thwart the voters’ will by imposing what amounts to a poll tax.

Was she just flat-footed or looking over her left shoulder?

She effectively assailed Joe Biden for 40 years ago opposing busing, which helped break down some school segregation barriers. This was a controversial political issue that has been off the radar for decades. She now draws a distinction between voluntary and mandatory busing, justified only in extreme cases. She talks about reparations for slavery, a touchy political subject, but is vague on specifics. 

A campaign theme, drawing on her decade and half as a prosecutor is she'll prosecute the case against Donald Trump. She had notable achievements in addressing police brutality and reducing incarcerations, though not enough to satisfy the left wing. One success that she inexplicably seems to be backing away from, following some complaints from the African-American community, was aggressively going after parents of school children who were chronically truant.

Critics complain she was too passive in prosecuting mortgage fraud culprits like Steve Mnuchin, now Trump's Treasury Secretary, who then headed a California bank that investigators found had over a thousand violations of foreclosure laws. Sen. Harris voted against him for the cabinet post.

Most troubling could be an Associated Press story a few weeks ago quoting organizations and individuals who were victimized by pedophilic priests and who charge that, as district attorney, Harris failed to act aggressively against the church.

The campaign insists she had a strong record in going after sexual assault predators and that the issue of not releasing records back then was about protecting the privacy of some of the victims, an explanation rejected by victims’ groups.

Politically, there are questions whether her top campaign team is ready for a prime time presidential run, though she's added some experienced hands. The key figure is campaign chairwoman, her sister, Maya, an exceptionally able liberal policy advocate.

The last time a close relative played an effective operating role in a successful presidential campaign was Robert F. Kennedy in 1960.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for the Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.