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Kamala Harris Pinch-Hits for Biden in the Democrats’ Moment of Need

Supporters of the VP want it noticed that she gave the president his only good headlines of the night.

Vice President Kamala Harris
Vice President Kamala Harris appeared live on CNN via satellite from Los Angeles after the debate. Yuki Iwamura/AP

As Democrats reeled from the shock of the presidential debate Thursday, spinning the president’s performance fell to Vice President Kamala Harris, who appeared live on CNN via satellite from Los Angeles. What followed were the only real minutes of good news beleaguered Democrats got all night.

“Yes, it was a slow start,” Harris said at the outset of her remarks, addressing the Biden performance head-on. “But it was a strong finish.”

Over several minutes, Harris delivered a cogent explanation of the Democratic agenda and forcefully attacked Donald Trump. It was notable for being 180 degrees different from the debate itself. Democrats were still biting their nails across the country, but Harris’ appearance had at least impressed the CNN panel.

Pre-debate releases from the campaign had not listed Harris as a scheduled debate spinner. Instead, the person who got top billing in the spin room was Trump’s niece, Mary Trump, who has long urged voters away from supporting her uncle. Mary Trump did some media before the debate kicked off, but afterward, it was clear the Democratic presidential campaign had more pressing needs. Democrats were floating the possibility of Biden stepping down before November.

“People are concerned,” a source familiar with high-level Democratic conversations told NOTUS of feelings leading up to Harris’ pinch-hit interview.

The president’s faltering on the debate stage amplified Democrats’ chatter about who could replace him on the ticket. His number two, Harris, was notably absent from the hypothetical dream candidate list. She’s been dogged by a perception that she is not ready and poll numbers that show she’s not popular. So, as the parlor games began in Democratic circles, names like California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker flew across social media and in text conversations with political operatives.

But Harris remains the closest to the presidency. As the CNN appearance drew praise, her allies wondered why she wasn’t getting more mentions as a Biden backup plan.

One House Democratic member expressed a long-held belief by some in the party that the vice president is overlooked because she is Black and a woman despite having “been more involved” in the administration and “releasing more initiative.”

“I know it’s campaign season, but she’s qualified and she’s been closer to the job than anybody else,” they told NOTUS over text. “That kind of rubs me the wrong way because under normal circumstances, if his Vice President hadn’t been a Black woman all of those people would have been saying, ‘Give it to the Vice President.’ It’s rooted in some isms that I’m not willing to subscribe to.”

Quentin James, president of Collective PAC — which has been advising the Biden campaign on messaging to voters of color — concurred, adding that the “reticence” to Harris is “based in people not being comfortable with a Black woman leading the country.”

“That’s not me saying ‘Democrats are racist,’ but it’s me saying the same dynamics at play in the WNBA or with Hillary Clinton losing in 2016 are present in our politics,” he told NOTUS. “But the reality is VP Harris IS ON THE BALLOT in November and all of this is conjecture and distractions.”

Still, other Democrats are adamant that the fight over Biden’s successor was a distraction from the ultimate goal of beating Trump and delivered a warning that a departure from the unified coalition necessary to achieve that feat would jeopardize their chances in November.

“I am focused on this Team and this election,” Antjuan Seawright, a Rep. Jim Clyburn adviser in contact with the Biden campaign, told NOTUS over text. “Others should too.”

Evan McMorris-Santoro and Jasmine Wright are reporters at NOTUS. Tinashe Chingarande is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.