Kamala Harris’ debate challenge: prepared but not over-rehearsed

  • Jun 27, 2019
  • Tal Kopan
  • Boston Globe

WASHINGTON — The 2020 presidential campaign has been under way for months — but going into the second night of the Democrats’ kickoff debates, Sen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Eric Swalwell are treating the race as if it were brand new.

The California senator and the Dublin congressman are among 10 Democrats who will take part in Thursday night’s debate. Both have spent the week on location in Miami preparing, and both are approaching the night as a chance to introduce themselves to millions of voters.

They have different challenges. Harris is a top-tier contender, polling consistently among the five leading candidates, though her numbers have faded in recent weeks. Still, under the Democratic National Committee’s rules, her totals are good enough to put her near center stage, standing next to front-runners former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Swalwell, on the other hand, barely qualified for the debate, and will be at the edge of the 10 candidates onstage. He has struggled to break 1% in polling and is at risk of failing to make the debate stage in September when qualifying standards increase.

Harris goes into the evening with high expectations and clear risks. Her reputation as a seasoned prosecutor who has made her mark on Capitol Hill with tough questioning of Trump administration officials, which Harris has emphasized on the campaign trail, will be on the line as she takes the stage. At the same time, she’ll have to avoid playing into a perception that she is too cautious at times, a perception she helped foster in a town hall on CNN where she offered only that several issues she was asked about were worth “a conversation.”

Swalwell, a virtual unknown, just needs to be memorable during the five to 10 minutes of speaking time that all the candidates will have during the two-hour debate.

Harris has done prep sessions at GMMB, an advertising and political consultancy firm that worked with the campaigns for former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Her campaign staff says the debate is a “huge opportunity to introduce” the senator to millions who may be tuning in for the first time. Harris has been running for president since January, but in a May poll by Quinnipiac University, 40% of voters said they didn’t know enough about her to form an opinion.

“The more people hear her, the more they like her,” spokesman Ian Sams said. “So it’s a huge opportunity to introduce herself to the national audience onstage and remind people or show people what they like about her.”

Swalwell said he’s been running practice sessions where his staff has brought in a mix of people he knows and people he doesn’t, to give him a feel for being on stage with nine other candidates.

“This is the biggest opportunity to date that I have to introduce myself to the country,” Swalwell said. “Primary voters are starting to tune in and pay attention, and I’m excited to have this opportunity. … I will be ready but not rehearsed — that’s my goal.”

Neither candidate has experience with a debate with stakes this high. When Harris was in televised debates in her campaigns for California attorney general and the Senate, her preparation was “thorough and meticulous, unsurprisingly,” said Dan Newman, a political consultant who worked with Harris for years and recently left the firm handling her presidential campaign.

“I know some people are trying to turn it into a criticism of her in some form,” Newman said. “But she’s just not somebody who wings it in life. She’s just a thoughtful person who likes her process and her facts and her briefings and her studying. She’s a thorough preparer.”

Harris’ past debates nevertheless highlighted a skill that her supporters think could be an asset Thursday — her ability to quickly and concisely respond to the unexpected.

In her 2016 Senate debate, Harris’ opponent, former Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez, dabbed onstage when told her time had elapsed. In a memorable freeze-frame, Harris watched Sanchez’s dance move with a bemused expression and then chuckled, “So there’s a clear difference between the candidates in this race.”

Newman said that kind of response on the fly may be the key to standing out on Thursday.