STORM LAKE, Iowa—Surrounded by reporters at a family taqueria Friday afternoon in one of this state’s least-white places, Kamala Harris ordered three tacos and a quesadilla, then turned to her campaign chair-sister, Maya, to ask if she wanted anything to eat. A little while later, Harris sent an aide to the front of her bus to check if there were chips. There weren’t. No matter. She wandered over to a big pile of burritos, picked one up and inhaled it.
Kamala Harris is hungry.
She’s also behind. The career prosecutor and senator from California is the newest face among the four leading Democratic candidates, and her campaign has surpassed promising rivals like Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke. Still, she’s far from front-runner Joe Biden in national polls—and closer to Pete Buttigieg than she is to Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. And she faces a tough road in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary, where Biden and two New Englanders—Sanders and Warren—are considered the favorites.
So Iowa, a state that some thought she was ignoring in favor of South Carolina, has become an unexpectedly promising target for Harris. She’s running third here, behind Biden and Warren. Overwhelmingly, Harris seems, in mid-August, the candidate Iowans most want to like. “You’re in my top two,” they tell her, as only an Iowan can.
Biden still needs to fade if Harris is going to win the Iowa caucuses—though her campaign isn’t yet setting expectations that high. But his sturdier leads in the other early states—not just New Hampshire, but South Carolina and Nevada, too—add to the escalating pressure on Harris to exceed expectations here.
After a slow start, including a canceled trip to vote for disaster relief in the Senate that fanned the perception she wasn’t taking the state seriously enough, Harris’ full-time staff in Iowa now stands at more than 50. She’s airing her first TV ad, which mixes her biography with her message. Her supporters are quietly holding her up as the non-Biden candidate who could actually beat Trump. On Saturday, Iowa heavyweights Sue and Bob Dvorsky endorsed her as the future of the party.
“She has work to do sharpening her argument for herself and it needs to get sharper to meet the potential of her campaign,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former Obama adviser and co-host of “Pod Save America.” “But,” he added, there’s time: “Obama didn’t nail his message until the Iowa [Jefferson-Jackson] dinner in November” of 2007.
So far, Harris has a public image as a tough interrogator of Trump administration officials and nominees, one that was bolstered by her surprise confrontation of Biden in the first debate. But she also is developing a reputation for making a splash on TV and then failing to capitalize on it. After a sparkling launch, Harris became embroiled in questions about whether she supported the abolition of private health insurance. (She doesn’t, according to her recently released plan, though she wants to move away from employer-based health care.) After the first debate, Harris shot up in the polls, but the sugar rush has again subsided.
Harris finds herself in a crucial stretch—between now and the late fall. Harris stopped in 11 Iowa counties during a five-day bus tour that began on Thursday and ends Monday. An aide called it her “leaning-into-Iowa moment.” The retail-heavy trip was designed to allow her to do something advisers and friends are urging her: Open up—whether her audience is reporters or voters.
As much as they like her, Iowans say they need to see much more of her. Harris’s campaign is hoping to help caucus-goers better understand her motivations by learning more about her personally.
And she wants to sharpen a central characteristic of her message that’s being overshadowed by Biden’s “battle for the soul of this nation” and Warren’s plan-centric calls for “big, structural change.” At a bar in Sioux City and a classroom in Fort Dodge, Harris leaned into what she calls her “3 a.m. agenda”—a middle-class tax cut, equal pay for women and “Medicare for All” health care that’s less aggressive than the proposal pitched by Sanders and backed by Warren, but less of a turnoff for liberals than Biden’s plan.
Harris pitches these plans by talking about her late mother, at the kitchen table when she and Maya were girls, paying the bills. She shares memories of her mother’s battle with cancer. “My perspective is that people don’t want policy formed by ideology,” Harris told me on the bus. “They want policy formed by literally what are the issues that wake them up in the middle of the night.”
Harris’ roots in retail campaigning stretch to the transit stations of San Francisco, where she stood outside, during early morning and afternoon rush hours, pitching herself as the next district attorney to anyone that would listen. “You just literally stand there and ask people to shake your hand,” Debbie Mesloh, a longtime Harris aide and friend from the city, recently recalled.
In California, Harris hit churches Sunday mornings and senior centers for bingo night. She also walked busy business districts asking store owners and coffee shop workers if she could put her sign in their windows. Maya recalled stuffing envelopes. When she ran for attorney general of California, this style of campaigning was much less prevalent, and mostly served to introduce her early on in Los Angeles. Statewide bids in California, with its huge population and hundreds of miles between big cities, are waged over the TV airwaves and among powerful constituencies like labor, with heavy retail only for show.
Long days in Iowa are different. Here, you can win by making person-to-person contact. Literally touching people. At the State Fair, before a crowd far larger and more diverse than Biden’s, but not as big as Warren’s, Harris ripped into Trump’s “trade-by-tweet” policy “born out of his fragile ego” … that has “soybeans rotting in bins.”
“Dude gotta go!” she resolved, a dismissal that landed to mixed reaction throughout the trip.
Harris framed her events around the “3 a.m.” message, spending considerable time on it while trying to flatter Iowans by telling them their conversations helped create it and have “made me a better candidate.”
The range of inquires she’s fielding here can be jarring. Kendra Breitsprecher, a teacher for three decades who started her own business, said she’s been busy asking the Democrats how they’ll respond when Trump mocks them during a debate.
“I’ll probably laugh,” Harris replied after a roundtable with educators in Ford Dodge.
Breitsprecher stepped back. She looked surprised. “That was a good answer,” she said. “A lot of people would say, ‘I’ll meet him punch for punch.’ But I’m tired of that. I want to hear Michelle Obama: ‘When they go low, we go high.’”
What is Harris going to do about farmers? Carol Peterson asked. Harris talked about all the farmland in California’s Central Valley: “It’s not just a regional issue. This is a national issue.”
Peterson didn’t mind that Harris’ reply wasn’t Iowa-centric. But she lamented Trump’s standoff with China, which Harris didn’t mention. “The trade war is going to be terrible,” Peterson said. Everyone nodded.
A Storm Lake voter’s environmental concerns inspired ripped-from-the-briefing-book answers from Harris about Iowa’s wind power, but also philosophical musings about how she prioritizes preserving the planet. “I care about the environment not because I have any particular interest in hugging a tree,” Harris told her tour guide, Andrea Frantz, “but because I have a very strong interest in hugging a healthy baby.”
At Matt Russell and Pat Standley’s Coyote Run Farm in Lacona, Harris wanted to hear about the future of farming and how to address climate change. She toured the farm in boots, stopping off for a conversation with Russell and a young farming family. They talked about trade, rural development and the farm bill.
“We’re going to take this little Angus by the horns,” Harris closed.
They all laughed, her nervously. She quickly corrected herself.
“We’re going to take this bull by the horns. Angus doesn’t have horns,” she said. “I mixed up my metaphors. I know farms, come on people.”
At the taqueria, a boy wanted to chat about his tips for scoring the best treats at the State Fair (for the record: She ordered a six pack of pork chops and apple “egg rolls” with caramel sauce). Inside, a Dreamer—an undocumented immigrant brought to the United States by her parents—softly confided in Harris about how scared she is to live in Trump’s America. Harris stepped closer and held on to both of the Dreamer’s shoulders, staring in her eyes.
“We’re better than this,” Harris promised, advising she keep her “chin up and shoulders back.”
“Be strong—and always remember you belong,” she said.
Tearing up, the Dreamer nodded slowly.
“You hear it? I’m a United States senator telling you that. I’m a serious candidate for president of the United States telling you that. So, what are you going to do? And what are you going to remember?”
Harris’ bus pulled into the parking lot of Iowa’s annual Wing Ding dinner late Friday in Clear Lake as a crowd of yellow-shirted KAMALA volunteers and staff finished their hours of chanting. Bernie and Jane Sanders had just left in a minivan.
Tim Ryan and his family, including young son Brady on his shoulders, chatted with Obama guru-turned-CNN talking head David Axelrod. Just moments before, Axelrod was telling me it’s “probably reaching that time” when also-rans like Ryan start to consider their exceedingly narrow chances. (To be fair, he didn’t name names and was more diplomatic than that in his wording).
Across Iowa, I talked with dozens of Democratic officials, activists and caucusgoers who are also closely eyeing the race and thinking that the field needs to shrink soon.
These bottom-dwellers are too boring, too nerdy, too fake, too angry or too old. They have no charm, no energy, no gravitas, no message or no base.
As Tracy Freese, Grundy County Democrats’ chairwoman, put it: “Thin the herd!”
“If I have to see John Delaney or one of his staffers one more time, I am going to punch them in the face,” she said, only half-joking. “Stop making Elizabeth Warren debate with the Monopoly Man.”
Warren has been to Iowa a lot more than Harris. The Wing Ding audience was already on its feet by the fourth word of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” her introductory campaign song. Buttigieg got huge applause, too.
But Iowans know Biden. And for all their concerns, they still think he’s their safest bet.
What’s the line, Freese said, “‘Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line?’ I just want to fall in line this time. I just want to win.”
JoAnn Hardy, the Democratic chair of Cerro Gordo County, Iowa, the site of the Wing Ding, said Harris’ debate hit on Biden was hard to watch. “She made it personal and she didn’t have to. She could have talked more generally about the issue,” Hardy said. It was “how tough and mean she can be … I probably like her a little less for it.”
Others saw the challenge to Biden as the kind of momentum-generating turning point they are hoping to see more of from a candidate with the right attributes trying to put it all together.
“Articulate. Compassionate. Feisty,” said Paul Dahl, of Webster City, as he waited for Harris to arrive.
Added Stacey Helvik, a teacher’s assistant from Ford Dodge, after Harris finished speaking: “When she talks, I do believe her. She’s somebody that my kids could look up to.”
Mike Goodwin, retired from labor relations with Mid-American Energy, seemed almost to parrot Harris’ own talking points after she spoke in Sioux Falls.
“We have got to have someone on stage that can prosecute the case against Trump,” he said.
Closing the deal, Harris told me, is going to take time. Biden’s been in public office in a high-profile way for 40 years, and he was the vice president under an exceedingly popular president.
“There is a piece of it that is literally about name recognition,” Harris said. She talked about building an Iowa foundation for her campaign by “laying layers.”
“I’m happy with where we are,” she said. “I don’t want to be popping early.”
Meantime, what Iowans do know about her is slowly sinking in. Mingling under an amphitheater on the Missouri River Thursday evening, some teachers in pink and black “KAMALA” hats were having a rapid-fire round of 2020 trivia. This really is the kind of thing you witness in Iowa.
One asked what Harris enjoys cooking. A correct answer came quickly: “roast chicken!”