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Potential presidential candidates road-test their messages
05:56 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

At Kamala Harris’ first stop in Iowa this week, a woman edged her way through the crowd to meet the California senator.

Lindsay Simpson, a 33-year-old English teacher, told Harris she was a victim of sexual abuse. Simpson’s eyes brimmed with tears as she told Harris, who took both of Simpson’s hands in her own, that she felt the California senator had spoken for all the women who have experienced sexual assault when she questioned the then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, the psychology professor who accused Kavanaugh of assault when they were in high school. Kavanaugh denied the allegations.

As the two women stood close together with their eyes locked, Harris told Simpson that she was strong and brave to tell her story. Then Harris reached out. “Come here,” she said, enfolding Simpson in a hug as she wept.

Those kinds of intimate encounters with Harris occurred over and over with women in Iowa this week, where Harris spent two days campaigning for midterms candidates and reacquainting herself with voters in a key state should she run for president in 2020.

It is far too early to assess Harris’ viability within an enormous field of likely 2020 candidates. But with her prosecutorial style and unflappable demeanor during the Kavanaugh hearings, she clearly forged a unique connection with women, one that could serve as a powerful driver in her campaign if she decides to run.

In a brief interview at her last stop in Cedar Rapids Tuesday night, Harris noted that she specialized in sexual assault cases as a young lawyer in California, giving her insight into the reluctance of victims to tell anyone about their experiences because of feelings of shame and isolation.

The victims she is meeting now, Harris said, defy any easy characterization or grouping. At a Tuesday event in Waterloo, Iowa, for example, a young man pulled her aside to tell her that he had been sexually abused.

“It is happening a lot,” Harris said. “It is agnostic in terms of race, party affiliation, gender.”

“This is an issue that affects a lot of people; people just don’t talk about it,” Harris said. “This is an issue that is where domestic violence was 30 years ago when we didn’t talk about it—and it was like ‘Oh, that’s private folks’ business.’”

Reflecting on the Kavanaugh hearings, she added: “In the disappointment of it all, one of the things that came out of it that may be something we can translate into a strength—is that we are now going to talk about this issue….and provide a safe space for people who have experienced it to talk about and not be judged.”

She said she tries to remind each of them that their voices are powerful.

Simpson, who told Harris she watched “every second” of the hearings, said the senator is now at the top of her 2020 list: “She called him out. She was really tough,” said Simpson, who teaches English at the community college in Ankeny where Harris spoke. “She’s not going to be bullied. She’s not going to be silenced. She is someone who is willing to challenge the patriarchy.”

“We recognized ourselves in Dr. Ford,” Simpson added in an interview after meeting Harris in Ankeny. “It was outrageous, and she knew that it was outrageous—so it was like watching myself being represented for me. She comes across to me as someone who is very genuine, someone who is willing to dig into trenches, someone who is going to talk about hard things.”

During Harris’ first foray to Iowa since she campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008, several dozen women expressed those kinds of sentiments to Harris as they crowded around to meet her after each event.

On the college campuses that Harris visited, several young women told the former prosecutor that her questioning during the Judiciary Committee hearings had inspired them to pursue careers in the law or politics.

A few spontaneously burst into tears as soon as they met her, struggling to get their words out as they would tell her she was an icon or a role model – praise the senator brushes off by telling them they are role models to her.

Harris, who demonstrates a warmth on the campaign trail, often leaned in close in those encounters, dispensing hugs, or taking her young admirers by the shoulders as she offered words of encouragement and career advice.

One high-school senior appeared in Cedar Rapids wearing a black T-Shirt imprinted with images of Harris’ face as she skeptically questioned Kavanaugh during the Judiciary Committee hearings.

“Can you make that face in the picture?” the young woman asked Harris as her mom took their picture.

Harris, laughing, said she wasn’t sure she could replicate it: “I don’t know. It was actually quite inspired—that look,” she replied.

While Harris won’t yet entertain discussion about a run for the White House—or how her role as a voice for the #MeToo movement might affect her thinking—many of these young women who showed up in Iowa to meet her are encouraging her to do it.

Isabelle Barrett, a 21-year-old college student who is working as an electoral fellow for Planned Parenthood of Iowa, wants to see Harris run for president with Elizabeth Warren as her vice presidential nominee.

“I saw my rapist in Brett Kavanaugh,” Barrett said in an interview this week, moments after connecting with Harris in Ankeny. “The Kavanaugh hearings really kicked me down, but she gave me hope just by standing up and then walking out, trying not to give him the time of day. Because if we give rapists and abusers—even alleged ones—the time of day, then it becomes OK. It normalizes their behavior; and I’m really tired of that happening in this country.”

When Barrett cried during their conversation, Harris told her “showing emotion means you have strength.” The 21-year-old student from Des Moines said that as a lesbian, she’s been encouraged to see “all these stars in the Democratic Party stand up for marginalized people.”

“I know there are people in my corner,” Barrett said, “and I want to see women elected.”

As Harris was wrapping up her Iowa tour in Cedar Rapids Tuesday night, she met Molly Monk, another assault victim who is working this fall as an organizer training volunteers and canvassers in Iowa.

“Thank you for being willing to talk about it, and having the courage to that,” Harris told Monk quietly after the 24-year-old shared her experience as a victim. “Just remember, nobody is going to be silenced. We’re all in this together.”

For Monk, the Kavanaugh hearings reinforced her admiration for both Harris and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar—and her desire to see more women like them in power.

“Watching the two of them just so calmly and patiently, and really forcefully, asking questions, and doing it without getting emotional in any way, I want to be that at some point,” said Monk, who lives in Cedar Rapids. “I’m looking forward to becoming women like them.”

After Kavanaugh was confirmed, Monk said, “I just felt shitty. He reminds me of every frat boy I ever dealt with in college… I just felt disappointed, but I was expecting to be disappointed.”

Monk is hopeful that more women will be elected in 2018 and 2020 in a step toward changing the culture. “But it feels like every September for the past three years there’s been another big sexual assault case, and nothing really changed,” she said. “I’m hopeful. But I almost expect to be disappointed again.”

Harris, however, is a different story, Monk said: “I don’t think she’s ever going to disappoint me.”