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The abortion debate is giving Kamala Harris a moment. But voters still aren't sold

Noah Bierman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Women

PHOENIX — When a group of crossover voters was asked during a focus group about Vice President Kamala Harris, their assessments were brutal: If she is helping Biden, you don't see it. She rubs me the wrong way. She was picked because she is a demographic. The big things she had, she failed.

The comments, fair or not, represent a problem for President Joe Biden and for Harris, echoed in interviews with voters here in Arizona, a key swing state where Harris spoke on Friday. More than three years into the oldest president in history's first term, his understudy has failed to win over a majority of voters or convince them that she is ready to step in if Biden falters, according to polls.

"Swing voters don't like her," said Gunner Ramer, political director for a group called Republican Voters Against Trump, which allowed the Los Angeles Times to view videos from three focus groups, including the crossover group that featured people who voted for former President Donald Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020.

It wasn't just former Trump voters who were negative about Harris. In a focus group of Black voters who were disappointed with Biden, none raised their hand in support of Harris, with one participant calling her "the bad news bear." A focus group of California Democrats, while they liked Harris, had to be prompted to discuss her and said she needed more influence and exposure.

Many of Harris' allies and supporters say the judgments are influenced by racism and sexism, pointing out that other vice presidents stayed in the background with less scrutiny and saw their popularity tied to the top of the ticket. Some people in focus groups criticized her clothes or compared her to Hillary Clinton in comments that seemed to validate those concerns.

But her low popularity could pose a political problem that her predecessors have not faced, given the focus on Trump's and Biden's ages, 77 and 81 respectively. More than half of voters, 54%, said she is not qualified to serve as president in a March USA Today/Suffolk poll, compared with 38% who said she is.

 

"If there was a health event for either nominee, the VP is front and center in terms of people who may be on the fence, people who may dislike both candidates," said David Paleologos, who conducted a USA Today/Suffolk poll that asked voters their assessment of Harris. "And there are a lot whose decision may hinge on a comfort level with the vice presidential choice."

Harris has heard the criticism since she entered the White House to historic triumph in 2021. While she seldom responds directly, she has stepped up her appearances with core Democratic groups, often keeping a more robust campaign and travel schedule than Biden. Many allies believe her role as the administration's leading voice on abortion rights will boost her and the Democratic ticket on an issue that helped carry the party to unexpected success in the 2022 midterm elections.

She spoke Friday in Tucson, three days after the state's Supreme Court ruled that a 1864 ban on abortion can be enforced in the coming weeks. She framed the Democrats' case against Trump, who has claimed credit for shifting the Supreme Court against abortion rights and last week said each state should decide on the issue.

"Just like he did in Arizona, he basically wants to take America back to the 1800s," Harris said.

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©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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