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.
“That’s actually one of the most impressive responses you could never prep for in a million years, just the lip bite and the eyebrow raise,” Newman said. “That bodes well. Because I don’t know what’s going to be newsworthy here. … It’s hard to foresee what a breakthrough moment looks like.”
In 2010, Harris narrowly defeated Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley for California attorney general. In their debate a month before the election, Cooley was asked if he would collect his pension from his county job while holding a state office that paid $150,000 a year.
He said he had earned the pension and would collect it “to supplement the very low, incredibly low, salary that’s paid to the state attorney general.” Harris laughed and said, “Go for it, Steve.” Her campaign then cut a television ad of the answer with the text, “$150,000 a year isn’t enough?”
Harris is known for her sharp questioning of Trump administration officials at congressional hearings, and has been leaning into her prosecutor past in recent weeks on the campaign trail to make the case that she can take on President Trump in 2020. But the debate stage will be a different forum, without a clear enemy in sight. Veteran Democratic strategists expect that she’ll continue her message of prosecuting Trump rather than go after other candidates.
“If you watch this campaign on Twitter, you’d think it’s gone on 10 years, but most voters are just starting to know who the candidates are and what they stand for,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic consultant who served as a spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016. “The biggest thing that a candidate’s got to do is find a compelling way to talk about themselves as the solution and the antidote to Donald Trump.”
The senator’s campaign is also stocked with veterans of Clinton’s 2016 race, including Harris’ sister, Maya Harris, the senator’s campaign chair and a former senior policy adviser to Clinton. Having that kind of experience — especially from someone who knows the candidate as intimately as a sister — is a huge advantage, said Amanda Renteria, Clinton’s former national political director and chair of Emerge America, which supports Democratic women running for office.
Renteria expects Harris to focus on personalized storytelling, trying to find something that can stick with voters.
“Not only is the debate a speed round of introduction, but there’s a very high bar to memorable statements,” Renteria said. “Having gone through it one time before, you know what things hook and what things don’t.
“So knowing how smart Maya is, not only does she know how stories stick and how interesting facts stick, I think in debate prep you spend a lot of time trying to figure out what is your most memorable item and branded moment you can have.”
Spontaneity will be key, Renteria said. Like Swalwell, Harris must balance being prepared with not seeming rehearsed.
“I think people are going to be judging her on whether she’s too careful. … As she came out with her prosecutor branding, no one was saying she’s too careful,” Renteria said.
How to watch Thursday’s debate
On TV: NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo, 6-8 p.m. Thursday
Chronicle live blog: Chronicle political experts will live-blog during the debate at SFChronicle.com.
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet; former Vice President Joe Biden; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.; New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand; California Sen. Kamala Harris; former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; Dublin Rep. Eric Swalwell; self-help author Marianne Williamson; tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
“Every one of these candidates has some narrative that comes with them onto the stage, and the question is, how do you lean into the narrative you want and not further the narrative you don’t want?”
- MSNBC's Hayes presses Kamala Harris on her call to remove Trump's Twitter account
- Desperate Kamala Harris Making Dinner in Iowans’ Homes
- Donald Trump Jr. Under Fire for Sharing Racist Tweet About Senator Kamala Harris
- Presidential hopeful Kamala Harris restructures campaign, slashes staff to focus on Iowa
- Former Kamala Harris opponent: She showed her 'glass jaw' during Dem debate attacks
- Tulsi Gabbard rips Kamala Harris on her record as California prosecutor during second debate
- Joe Biden's backing drops by third in new polls after debate clash with Kamala Harris
- Kamala Harris Would Force Gun Owners To Sell Their Assault Weapons To The Government
- Kamala Harris Says Trump Was Watching Debate While He Was Speaking On Tax Cuts
- Kamala Harris Keeps Using The Same Excuse To Dodge Criticism
- Kamala Harris Appears To Blame Racism, Sexism For Struggling Campaign
- Kamala Harris Is Laying Off Staff, Restructuring Campaign: Report
- The Hill's Campaign Report: Democrats clash over future of party in heated debate
- Harris to cut some staff, redeploy others to Iowa in campaign shake-up
- The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden camp faces new challenges
- Saagar Enjeti: The Harris campaign still doesn't get it
- Democrats debate in Houston: Who came out on top?
- Missouri City resident attends presidential debate at TSU
Kamala Harris’ debate challenge: prepared but not over-rehearsed have 1721 words, post on www.sfchronicle.com at June 27, 2019. This is cached page on Auto News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.