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Biden's difficult debate puts spotlight on Harris

President Biden’s lackluster debate performance has thrust Vice President Harris into the spotlight.

After Biden struggled against former President Trump, Harris hit the airwaves to defend her running mate’s record and ability to handle the job. But she was also central to conversations among some Democrats about whether Biden should step aside, a move that would likely move Harris to the top of the ticket in November.

It puts Harris in a tricky spot as she seeks to reassure nervous Democrats about their chances in this year’s election while positioning herself as a potential future leader of the party.

“To be quite honest, she sounded coherent and made her points in a succinct and sharp way,” said one Democratic donor. “The next 30 days it may be up to her to make the case. People will be looking to her and testing her to see if she’s ready.” 

One Democrat, who served in the Obama White House, said Harris “clearly has a purpose now to make the case for what they have accomplished.”

The aide pointed to remarks from former President Obama, where he likened major political moments to a relay race. 

“This is the transitional moment where both she and Biden have their hands on the baton, but clearly she will be needed to complete the race,” they said. 

Biden squared off with Trump on the debate stage on Thursday night in what turned out to be a disastrous performance. The president’s voice was raspy for much of the 90 minutes, his delivery was frequently halting and at times he lost his train of thought or struggled to make his point clearly.

Many Democrats quickly panned Biden’s showing and raised the idea that he should step aside ahead of the party’s August convention.

That left Harris to defend her running mate on the same networks where anchors and pundits were discussing the prospect of Biden leaving the ticket.

“People can debate on style points, but ultimately this election and who is the president of the United States has to be about substance,” said Harris, who conceded Biden had a “slow start.” 

The vice president was not asked about, nor did she address, the elephant in the room: That she would be the likeliest candidate to replace Biden should he step aside.

The vice president’s team on Friday dismissed any talk of a Democratic ticket that doesn’t include both Biden and Harris.

“Vice President Harris looks forward to serving a second term with President Joe Biden,” Harris spokesperson Ernie Apreza said in a statement.

Biden’s campaign and White House officials similarly shut down talk of the president dropping out of the race after Thursday’s debate. At a North Carolina rally early Friday afternoon, Biden acknowledged his difficulties on the debate stage but insisted he was up to the job.

But should he step aside, Democratic strategists have downplayed the prospect of an open convention. They argued Harris would be the logical choice, given her role as vice president, and warned of the risks of passing over a Black woman already on the ticket for another candidate.

Harris launched a much-hyped presidential bid of her own in 2019, and one of her marquee moments came during an exchange with Biden on the debate stage over busing. But she failed to translate the initial enthusiasm over her candidacy into tangible support and struggled to connect with voters or develop a clear message. She ultimately dropped out before the Iowa caucuses.

When Biden was considering Harris as his running mate, some allies cautioned that Harris would be looking out for her own political pursuits while serving as vice president. Aware of that perception, Harris has sought to be a loyal foot soldier. 

“She knew it would be a horrible look if it turned to be the Kamala show,” said one Democratic strategist. 

Harris had a rocky opening to her tenure as vice president, stumbling with her messaging on the issue of migration and struggling to garner support for a voting rights package despite taking it on as a personal cause.

But she has hit her stride and become a valuable figure in the two years since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Harris has traveled the country to talk about reproductive rights, becoming the face of the White House and the campaign on an issue Democrats are hoping might swing the election in their favor. 

Harris has also traveled internationally to meet with world leaders and discuss the conflict in Ukraine.

“During her post-debate interview blitz, Vice President Harris really showed her strengths — she is a forceful communicator, an effective leader and a strong partner to President Biden,” said Rachel Palermo, who served as Harris’ deputy communications director and associate counsel in the White House.

“She reminded voters that the substance matters, and the contrast between Biden and Trump on the issues is clear,” Palermo added. 

Polling on Harris’s chances in 2024 if she were elevated to the top of the ticket has been scarce, but the available data suggests she may fare similarly to Biden.

A February New York Times/Siena College poll found Harris trailing Trump among likely voters in a hypothetical matchup by 6 percentage points, 42 percent to 48 percent. She fared only slightly worse than Biden, who at the time trailed Trump in that survey by 4 percentage points, 44 percent to 48 percent.

The same poll found 38 percent of likely voters had a favorable view of Harris, compared to 54 percent who had an unfavorable view of her.

Republicans have used Biden’s age to attack the prospect of a Harris presidency. Nikki Haley made it central to her failed presidential bid, suggesting a vote for Biden in 2024 was actually a vote for Harris.

The Trump campaign ran an ad during Thursday night’s debate that highlighted footage of Biden tripping on the stairs of Air Force One and looking lost on stage before a narrator said Harris was “waiting behind him.”

Thursday’s debate supercharged speculation from Republicans that Harris may ultimately end up in the Oval Office.

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) said Friday he planned to put forth a resolution urging Harris to convene the Cabinet and declare Biden unable to carry out the duties of the Oval Office. 

Alex Gangitano contributed

Source: The Hill

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