In an interview Thursday with The New York Times, President Donald Trump was asked whether there was anyone in the rapidly forming 2020 Democratic field who he thought might be his toughest opponent.
“I would say, the best opening so far would be Kamala Harris,” Trump responded. “I would say, in terms of the opening act, I would say, would be her.”
He’s right – even though he pronounced Harris’ first name wrong. (It’s pronounced “comma-la.”)
Of the early entrances we’ve seen in the Democratic race, Harris’ has been the best. Why?
Well, first, she clearly had a very well-thought-out plan, with a plan to get maximum media attention both nationally and in key early-voting states, as well as to send a powerful symbolic message about her candidacy.
Harris announced on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. At first glance, announcing on a federal holiday seemed a bit odd, but Harris’ announcement was the only thing happening that day – other than Trump tweets – and she dominated the coverage.
There was also the symbolism of the day – an African-American and Indian-American woman running for president of the United States on a day when the country stops to think about the civil rights leader who did so much to change our culture. And there was another nice piece of symbolism built into the day; her announcement came 47 years to the week that Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for president, formally entered the 1972 race.
Harris’ first stop in an early state as a candidate came last Friday, when she traveled to South Carolina to speak at the Pink Ice Gala sponsored by Alpha Kappa Alpha, the country’s largest black sorority (of which she is a member). Again, this was smart and strategic. To be the nominee, Harris needs to win South Carolina. And to win South Carolina she needs to consolidate black voters, who, in past primaries in the state, have made up more than 50% of the electorate.
From South Carolina, Harris traveled to her hometown of Oakland, California, where she delivered a traditional campaign kickoff speech in front of a crowd estimated at more than 20,000. (I wrote about the most telling lines in her speech here.) In truth, the big crowd Harris drew was probably what made Trump say he thought she had the best campaign kickoff. “A better crowd – better crowd, better enthusiasm,” Trump said of Harris in comparison with the other Democrats who have announced their plans to run.
Harris finished her weeklong announcement tour at Drake University in Iowa, where she fielded questions from voters – and CNN’s Jake Tapper – in a town hall format. She was at ease and effective – coming across as someone with a broad knowledge on issues but also a real person with flaws and challenges of her own.
Harris’ one hiccup of the week came in that town hall when she seemed to go further in terms of her support for “Medicare-for-all” than her record suggests. She said “let’s eliminate all of that” in response to the idea of problems people have in the private insurance market. Her campaign insisted that while she preferred the establishment of a federal public health care market, she still supported other legislative measures aimed at getting the country closer to full and inexpensive coverage.
Still, seen against the week, that was a minor blip.
Harris was regarded by many political handicappers – including yours truly – as one of the Democrats most likely to be the party’s nominee against Trump in 2020. Everything she did in her announcement rollout suggested that those early assessments were accurate.