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Biden’s halting debate performance puts a renewed spotlight on Harris

In the moments after President Biden’s halting debate performance Thursday, Vice President Harris went on a pair of television networks to praise him. She spent Friday crisscrossing the western United States, challenging those who worried he seemed old and ineffective.

And she took to social media on his behalf. “In a real leader, character matters more than style, and Donald Trump simply does not have the character to be President of the United States,” said one of the vice president’s posts on X.

Biden’s performance Thursday night, when he struggled for answers and occasionally appeared to lose his train of thought, abruptly placed a renewed spotlight on Harris. She emerged as Biden’s chief defender, but she also tops the list of those who could replace him if the landscape shifts.

It was a new wrinkle in what has been a complicated tenure for Harris, and potentially for her political future. When Biden picked Harris as his running mate in 2020, she was viewed as his heir apparent and made history as the first Black and Asian American woman to win a nationally elected office. But some Democrats believe her own 2020 presidential run exposed her as a weak candidate, and they say privately that as vice president she has struggled with verbal missteps and a low profile.

Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state senator and longtime Harris supporter, said the best way for Harris to bolster her prospects for a future presidential candidacy — whenever it may be — is to embrace her role as Biden’s biggest cheerleader.

‘One of the things that people around Joe Biden questioned was Kamala Harris’s ambition,” Sellers said. “He’s at the bottom right now. He’s at his worst right now. And who is his biggest supporter outside of Jill? It’s Kamala Harris.”

Sellers is among the Harris allies who say they believe she has recovered from a rocky first year as vice president, hitting her stride with appearances touting reproductive freedom and economic mobility. Should the party find itself looking for a presidential nominee, he suggested only Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg would be a worthy rival to her.

“The top tier of talent in the Democratic Party is Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg,” he said. “The most talented people we have in the party are Kamala and Pete, and I think when people look at it objectively, they would resolve the same thing.”

Biden on Friday gave no indication he is reconsidering his candidacy, delivering a fiery speech at a Raleigh event in North Carolina. “I know I’m not a young man, to state the obvious,” he said. “I don’t walk as easy as I used to. I don’t speak as smoothly as I used to. I don’t debate as well as I used to. But I know what I do know: I know how to tell the truth. I know right from wrong. And I know how to do this job.”

Almost since Biden took office, Democrats have speculated on who could be their next standard-bearer, and the often-mentioned go far beyond Harris, including such figures as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and California Rep. Ro Khanna.

As anxiety bubbled up in Democratic circles Friday, Harris faced another round of questions about her bona fides, according to more than half a dozen Democratic strategists, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

Some argued she has increasingly found her footing and that any presidential hopeful who sought to leapfrog over the first woman of color to serve as vice president would risk a powerful backlash.

“The first two years were so bad. Now we’re back up the roller coaster,” said one Harris supporter. “I won’t say my position on her has changed, but what she’s doing is making sure that no one can skip over her.”

Harris emerged as a leading voice on abortion rights after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, seizing on a central plank in the Democratic platform and one Biden sometimes seems uncomfortable discussing. She has traveled the country to talk about the erosion of rights, courting conflict with some of the GOP’s most vocal antiabortion voices.

Harris has also bolstered her résumé on the world stage, meeting a half-dozen times with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky amid Russia’s invasion of his country and holding confabs with dozens of world leaders.

Since Thursday’s debate, Harris has dodged or deflected questions about whether Biden should step down, while praising him as an effective president and moral man.

“It was a slow start. That’s obvious to everyone. I’m not going to debate that point,” Harris told CNN in the moments following the debate. “I’m talking about the choice for November. I’m talking about one of the most important elections in our collective lifetime.”

Biden’s camp had pushed for Thursday’s event, the earliest general-election presidential debate ever, hoping to assure uncertain voters that the oldest president in history has the acuity and stamina to lead the nation for another four years.

Instead, Biden’s raspy voice and occasional non-sequiturs alarmed many Democrats. At times when Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, was speaking, Biden stood listening with his mouth agape.

“I really don’t know what he said at the end of that sentence,” Trump interjected after one Biden answer. “I don’t think he knows what he said, either.”

Democrats’ worries about Biden’s performance spilled out before the debate’s first commercial break, reviving questions Biden has faced about his age since he announced he was seeking the White House in 2020. Those questions have put an added focus on the person who would replace him if he were unable to serve.

Some Republicans have blasted Harris as unfit to be president. Others have called her an embodiment of the “woke” left. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis invited her to debate slavery in Tallahassee as he sought to eradicate critical race theory from being taught in Florida schools. Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley warned that “a vote for Joe Biden is a vote for Kamala Harris.”

Harris’s supporters say her more recent positive moments have not been as closely covered as her earlier missteps. Either way, the scrutiny has now been turned up another notch.

Harris’s post-debate interview on CNN was closely analyzed, with some saying Harris had emerged as Biden’s most vigorous defender and noting her forcefulness, and others saying she was taking a backhanded shot at Biden’s debate performance.

Many Democrats stressed that whatever Biden’s struggles, their ticket is unlikely to change. That “is where the team is and will likely stay,” said Donna Brazile, who ran former vice president Al Gore’s presidential campaign.

She dismissed suggestions that the president might step aside. “Biden made the decision to run,” she said in a text message. “He has raised the money and put together a team to make the case.”

At a rally Friday in Las Vegas, Harris sought to deliver that message as best she could under the circumstances. Depicting Biden as a leader and Trump as a liar, she declared, “This race will not be decided by one night in June.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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