Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris on Thursday night established a commanding presence on her party’s debate stage – cutting through the cacophony of her rivals and insisting time and again that the candidates turn their attention to the troubles of “real Americans.”
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Harris’ surefooted and forceful debate performance, after languishing in single digits in the polls, appears likely to cement her role in the top-tier of candidates vying to take on President Donald Trump in the general election.
In one of the sharpest exchanges of the night, the former prosecutor took direct aim at the Democratic field’s frontrunner – confronting former Vice President Joe Biden over his 1970s-era opposition to the federal government’s role in using school busing to integrate schools while highlighting her personal story as small child who benefited from early busing in Berkeley, California.
Biden bristled as Harris repeatedly pressed him on his decades-old position.
“Vice President Biden, do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then?” she asked, turning to face him. “No” a testy Biden responded.
Biden said he did not oppose “busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education. That’s what I opposed.”
The exchange with Biden demonstrated Harris’ courtroom-sharpened skills – her campaign’s frequent refrain is that she’s in the best position to “prosecute the case” against Trump. But it also served to underscore the racial and generational divide between the two.
On the debate stage and in a post-debate interview with CNN, Harris emphasized the personal toll of anti-school busing policies.
“The policy perspective that was opposed to busing had real consequence,” she said on CNN. “I was that little girl. And there are many others around the country who were those little girls and boys.”
Even before the Biden-Harris confrontation, the political world had begun cheering Harris on as she cut through the noise on the crowded debate stage to calmly convey her positions.
“Kamala Harris’ campaign manager is on the phone right now with the DNC proposing more debates,” Dan Pfeiffer, a former adviser to President Barack Obama and the co-host of Pod Save America, tweeted.
“Kamala Harris is capturing the heart and soul of the Democratic Party,” Republican pollster Frank Luntz tweeted early on. Later, he added: “In just about every way imaginable, Kamala Harris dominated. She had the guts to take on and embarrass Joe Biden – not only did she have the best language, she was the most memorable.”
In one breakout moment early in the debate, the California senator held up her hands as her rivals talked over one another and the moderator to say: “Guys, you know what? American does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.”
The crowd erupted in applause.
Minutes later, she evoked the anguish of parents of a fevered child, sitting outside an emergency room and weighing whether they could afford to pay a $5,000 deductible the treatment would bring. The crowd erupted again.
Harris, the only African-American candidate on Thursday night’s stage and one of a record six women running for the presidency, didn’t shy away from reminding voters of her biography and how that had shaped her world view.
“There is not a black man I know, be he a relative, a friend or a coworker who has not been the subject of profiling or discrimination,” Harris said during her pointed exchange with Biden.
“My sister and I had to deal with the neighbor who told us her parents couldn’t play with us because we were black,” she added.
After the debate, Harris’ fundraising boomed, an aide told CNN. The campaign, the aide said, raised more money on Thursday than any day of the campaign other than Harris’ launch day and the day after the launch.
CNN’s Dan Merica contributed to this story.