Debate is Harris's turn at bat, but will she score?

Debate is Harris's turn at bat, but will she score?
© Getty Images

For 90 minutes on Wednesday night, Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE will hand control of his presidential campaign over to Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisWomen set to take key roles in Biden administration Trump campaign appeals dismissal of Pennsylvania election challenge Pressure grows from GOP for Trump to recognize Biden election win MORE. Once Harris walks out onto that stage to debate Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceLoeffler to continue to self-isolate after conflicting COVID-19 test results Loeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection Pence campaigns in Georgia as Trump casts shadow on runoffs MORE, all of the trust and confidence that Biden invested in her as the Democratic nominee for vice president will have to pay off. Add to that, Harris’s role in the upcoming Supreme Court hearings and the pressure on the California senator in this campaign probably never will be greater than during the next 10 days. 

If a presidential campaign is more like a decathlon than a marathon, then debates and hearings are Harris’s best events. These formal set-pieces are where her skills as a prosecutor have bested the competition. Nobody is better prepared, more direct and able to switch back-and-forth between charm and intensity. 

Harris scored her most impressive political victory on the debate stage during the primaries against none other than Biden. It would have been easy for Biden to let that moment get in the way of his veep choice, but he picked Harris anyway. That choice revealed a fundamental level of confidence in Biden’s approach.


Of course, no candidate is perfect, and this debate offers Harris and the Biden campaign a chance to right a couple of wrongs evident from her presidential primary campaign. On the trail, Harris delivered blows without equal, but sometimes she seemed unsteady in counterpunching after an attack. Hopefully her team drilled that movement. Secondly, too often, it seemed the campaign was uber-prepared to score points from a big moment and less ready to take a victory lap and drive the point home after the moment. When the lights turned to the candidate, the campaign wasn’t ready to keep the candle burning. 

This time, the Biden campaign should execute an aggressive plan. The digital teams should push memes, quotes and key video moments out on social media. They’ve already got conference calls and talking points in the works, and the joint event that Biden and Harris will hold the next day in Arizona should help prolong the news cycle for any strong debate moments. If for some reason there is a problem, an event such as that can help turn the narrative in a different direction.

After debate night, Harris will have to pivot her prep sessions to focus on the upcoming Supreme Court nomination hearings in the U.S. Senate. Unless Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTop aide: Biden expected to visit Georgia in push to boost Ossoff, Warnock Democrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks Richmond says GOP 'reluctant to stand up and tell the emperor he wears no clothes' MORE comes to his senses and postpones the hearings, Harris will take her chair on the Judiciary Committee a week after debate night to review Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination. 

Barrett should watch out. Harris’s most impressive moments in the Senate have happened in the Judiciary Committee hearing room that they will occupy next week. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Attorney General William BarrBill BarrMerrick Garland on list to be Biden's attorney general: report DOJ dropping charges against ex-Mexican defense minister DOJ watchdog finds Louisiana inmates with coronavirus were not isolated for a week MORE can testify to her tenacity, acuity and deftness. She leveled them in questioning. Even her seatmate and then-fellow presidential aspirant Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerSenate Democrats reelect Schumer as leader by acclamation  Hill associations push for more diversity in lawmakers' staffs Sanders celebrates Biden-Harris victory: 'Thank God democracy won out' MORE (D-N.J.) had to marvel at the way she questioned Barr.

These opportunities are important for another reason. President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden to nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield for UN ambassador: reports Scranton dedicates 'Joe Biden Way' to honor president-elect Kasich: Republicans 'either in complete lockstep' or 'afraid' of Trump MORE falling victim to the COVID-19 monster that he let grow stronger only heightens the importance of Harris’s doing well. Americans need to know the Democratic team will work for the country, regardless of the circumstances, and seeing Harris as a strong leader will undergird their confidence in voting for Joe Biden. 


The relationship between presidential nominees and their seconds sometimes can get weird. They are based on an odd mix of overlapping ambition, political necessity, and complementing abilities. Except for Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreKey McConnell ally: Biden should get access to transition resources CNN acquires Joe Biden documentary 'President in Waiting' Former GSA chief: 'Clear' that Biden should be recognized as president-elect MORE, who reinforced Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonWomen set to take key roles in Biden administration Biden's great challenge: Build an economy for long-term prosperity and security Biden faces politically thorny decision on Trump prosecutions MORE’s strengths, most vice presidential candidates shore up a weakness at the top of the ticket. Dick Cheney reassured America that there would be an experienced hand advising George W. Bush. Biden increased Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaCan Biden vanquish Democrats' old, debilitating ghosts? How space exploration will help to address climate change Democrats' squabbling vindicates Biden non-campaign MORE’s appeal to working-class whites in Scranton, Pa., and other communities around the country.

Sure, Harris satisfied Biden’s commitment to pick a woman and, after the summer’s racial justice focus, picking a woman of color seemed like a no-brainer. But the real strength she adds to the ticket is more metaphysical than demographic or geographic. Harris juices up the ticket with youthful energy and embodies the Democrats’ embrace of an inclusive future. Biden always wore cool classic aviator glasses, but it wasn’t until Harris wore a pair of throwback Chuck Taylor sneakers that the campaign almost broke the internet. This debate and those hearings are an opportunity to remind voters of Harris’s policy chops while they admire her footwear.

America is about to get another close-up look at Kamala Harris and this time, the contest comes to her dojo.  

Jamal Simmons is a Democratic campaign strategist, CBS News analyst and hosts #ThisisFYI on Instagram and Facebook. Follow him on Twitter @JamalSimmons.