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How Kamala Harris Prepares for the VP Debate

BuzzFeed News; Logan Cyrus / AFP / Getty Images

He called the president a “fool”. He complained that no one could hear about “this clown” before correcting himself dryly: “Sorry, that person.”

; And finally Joe Biden called across the room without hesitation: “Are you gonna shut up man

On the night of last week’s presidential debate in Cleveland, it was only a few hours for the Biden campaign to stamp the sentence on T-shirts.

Aides know that when Senator Kamala Harris steps into the debating stage with Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday, the same strategy won’t work for a black woman.

While preparing her in Salt Lake City, Harris’ team developed a strategy based in part on the reality that she will likely be perceived differently from the white male candidate she faces. Aides have reviewed studies – including that by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation – on how female candidates pay a heavy price for negativity and can be severely punished by voters on issues of honesty, a Biden aide said. Because of this, according to one election worker, Harris is unlikely to take on the role of reviewing Pence or try to confront him on falsehoods on a frequent basis.

Harris and her team also weigh up how to deal on stage with stereotypes that women, and black women in particular, refer to as angry and overly emotional. They are particularly aware of how that dynamic could play out at Pence, who is so evenly balanced that he made mild Senator Tim Kaine look aggressive in his first Vice-President Debate in 2016.

When Christina Reynolds, a senior officer with EMILY’s List women’s group, heard Biden say these five words on television last Wednesday, “Are you going to shut up, man?” – The first thought that crossed her mind was, “Hillary Clinton couldn’t have said that.” The second was, “I’m not sure Barack Obama could have it too.”

Biden took some flak for his tone in Cleveland – “I should have said this is a ‘clown endeavor’ instead of calling him a clown,” he told NBC’s Lester Holt on Monday night in a town hall – but the moment got there widely celebrated its own campaign.

“We’re giving some leeway to the candidates we’re used to,” said Reynolds, who served as Clinton’s 2016 deputy communications director. “There are things Mike Pence, Donald Trump and Joe Biden can do that Kamala Harris can do.” t. It’s hard to imagine that she would say, “Are you going to shut up, man?” And it would be a rallying point. “

The only vice presidential debate is usually nothing more than a footnote to the presidential race dwarfed by three presidential competitions. But with President Donald Trump infected with the coronavirus, the momentum has shifted and pence in particular has come into the spotlight. It is unclear whether there will be any further presidential debates.

The expectations on Wednesday are high. In her main campaign, Democratic voters often said they had dreamed of seeing Harris on a debate stage facing Trump, citing her performance at Senate hearings where she grilled Trump administration officials.

Senator Cory Booker, who spoke on the phone between Monday’s Zoom sessions, said he saw his colleague refine a careful mix of tones in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings: “She’s very respectful and professional, but tough at the same time. And it does it in a way that doesn’t violate the formality or the decency of a moment. “

“But I’ve sat next to her once before, when, you know, I winced!” Booker laughed. “Because she was hit so hard.”

Her most memorable moment in the Democratic primary came during a debate when she confronted Biden about his record of bus rides and desegregation – which caused her fundraisers to skyrocket and her poll numbers to skyrocket overnight.

But people close to Harris have tried to live up to expectations regarding the debate by talking about Pence’s history of strong debating achievements. Harris himself too.

“He’s a good debater. So I’m so worried – as if I could only disappoint, ”she joked at a fundraiser in September.

“From day one, the expectations of them have been stratospheric and the margin of error tiny,” said a former Harris campaigner.

Harris’ allies point to wide differences between Senate hearings – where it almost always thrives, cutting opponents with sharp questions apart – and debates where it also has to defend its own records and where the moderator is in control.

Former advisors say the high hopes for the candidate in Wednesday’s debate are also based on race and gender dynamics – in the same unequal way that staff believed the expectations were set in Harris in her presidential campaign.

“From day one, expectations of them have been stratospheric and the margin of error has been low,” said a former Harris Campaigner.

In Wednesday’s vice presidential debate, the aide said that Pence’s performance and temperament will likely be compared to Trump’s. But people are unlikely to compare Harris to Biden. Instead, the aide said, “She will be compared to Miami Kamala,” a reference to Harris’ first – and by far the strongest – debate.

Biden’s campaign is aware of these expectations and is careful about managing them.

Harris has been in Salt Lake City since Friday preparing for the debate at the University of Utah the day Trump checked into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for treatment for the coronavirus. The debate organizers said the Vice Presidential debate will proceed essentially as planned, with additional space between Pence and Harris, plexiglass and a new hospital-grade ventilation system installed in the venue.

Harris’ debate preparation team, assembled by the Biden campaign, was led in part by Karen Dunn, the veteran who prepared Tim Kaine for the vice-presidential debate against Pence four years ago.

Three former Kaine aides this week remembered that debate not exactly as a disaster, but as a clear and certain loss. Kaine, a senator best known as a steadfast, dependable hand with some sort of “aw-shucks” father demeanor on the campaign, came out hot and aggressive. He made a violent and (for him) somewhat unnatural attempt to put pence on Trump’s tax returns, Trump’s insults about women and Trump’s qualifications. It did not work. Pence did not take the bait or defend his run mate in the traditional way, but returned to topics of conversation with subdued discipline and a slightly knowing smile.

As she prepared for the debate, the Hillary Clinton team knew they were going to stand up against an “understated” speaker with experience as a former radio host, recalled Matt Paul, a senior Clinton official who attended the debate prep sessions with the Senator from Virginia attended. “There was tremendous pressure on Senator Kaine to bite more aggressively and openly than he was as a person,” Paul said. “For a lot of people, this wasn’t the Tim Kaine they were used to. So you have to provide the contrast, but it has to match your real approach. “

Now Harris will rise to the challenge as the first woman of color in the debate in a general election. “There have been moments when Tim Kaine has felt aggressive in part because Mike Pence’s style is reserved and reserved,” said Karen Finney, another senior Clinton official who helped Kaine prior to his 2016 debate.

“The elephant in the room is that the ‘angry black woman’ stereotype is something to watch out for,” Finney said of Harris. “How do you stylistically express a point so that it fits? [Pence’s] Sound, but still conveying the intensity of the topic? “

Robyn Beck / Getty Images

Biden and Harris will speak in Houston, Texas on September 12, 2019, following the third primary Democratic debate.

In the primary democratic debates, Harris’ strongest moment – the one many voters still think of when they imagine it during the debate stage – was ultimately a double-edged sword. When she confronted Biden in Miami about his previous disapproval of bus travel, desegregation, she spoke of being placed in an integrated school as a child.

“There was a little girl in California who was in second grade to integrate her public schools and she was taken to school by bus every day and that little girl was me,” she said.

Her delivery left Biden stammering, trying to defend himself, and it delivered a polling jump overnight in a historically overcrowded field of candidates. Harris was also criticized for launching a planned attack on Biden. When she was selling T-shirts from their Debate line – a photo of yourself as a child against a black background opposing campaign actors and some political journalists, cynical as calculated or cheap. And Harris tried to find a clear answer to questions after the debate about her own policies on bus transport and school integration.

In later debates, Harris endeavored to find a similarly commanding moment. In particular, an uneven performance in the second debate caused her to fall behind in the polls. In that debate, she strove to stand up for her health plan, which was intended to appease moderates and progressives alike, but which ended up messing up. Similar problems were repeated throughout Harris’s campaign, as she often provided responses to policy specifics that seemed confused or evasive.

Harris could face similar challenges on Wednesday night Pence if she is likely to get caught up in political talks that draw a careful line between her own, more liberal and Biden’s relatively moderate balance sheet. The Trump campaign has sought to portray Biden as controlled by the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party on issues like health care. Harris supported Medicare for All during elementary school.

Paul, the former aide of Clinton, noted that the candidates in the vice presidential debates are responsible for the records of four people: their own, those of the opponent, and those of the presidential candidates.

“Really, it’s a tremendous amount for VP candidates,” said Paul.

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