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Why Kamala Harris is stuck in neutral

David Catanese and Emily Cadei, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- She's taken a nose-dive in polling, struggled to hit her stride on an overarching message -- and now donors are beginning to wonder about her long-term viability.

Kamala Harris' presidential campaign is suddenly confronting a crossroads.

Having slid back to fourth place in most presidential primary polls, Harris is facing a core question about her political identity that may prove crucial to resurrecting her uneven path toward the Democratic Party nomination.

With front-runner Joe Biden firmly occupying the centrist establishmentarian lane and ardent progressives Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders comfortably championing the liberal wing of the party, the California senator is battling a precarious perception that she's a politician relying heavily on personal charisma but lacking a clear and compelling case for her candidacy.

"She's trying to find ground between Biden in the center and those two on the left. She's sandwiched in between those two places and it makes it look like, 'What is that?'" said Joe Trippi, the Democratic operative who steered Howard Dean's 2004 insurgent campaign for the presidency.

Nothing has crystallized Harris' conundrum more vividly than her reversal on "Medicare for All," a policy she lumberingly defended for months before retreating from its most dramatic provision: the elimination of private insurance.

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Her proposal, unveiled shortly before the second debate in late July, sought to carve out some middle ground, promising to move all Americans into the Medicare system while maintaining a role for private insurers. Senior Democratic operatives in California said that approach reflects the reputation she developed in the state for caution and pragmatism -- attributes that could serve her well in the general election but have troubled her outreach to primary voters.

Still, the slow-rolling flip-flop on health care -- long the top issue for Democratic voters -- reminded some Republicans of another former White House hopeful who was hobbled by inconsistencies on issues.

"You could compare her to Mitt in the sense that Mitt Romney was the moderate governor of a liberal state who had to tack right in a Republican presidential primary. Kamala Harris was a tough prosecutor who has to tack left," says Alex Castellanos, a Republican consultant who advised Romney's 2008 run.

Harris, a former attorney general and district attorney, has predicated her campaign on her ability to effectively "prosecute" the case against President Donald Trump. But the potency of that assertion has been undercut by a prosecutorial record that is an anathema to many of the progressives she's now trying to court. It's led to a range of blistering and hyperbolic claims -- from Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard's searing debate takedown to activists on the left who are fond of derisively calling her "a cop," to Republicans eager to cast extreme assertions.

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