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Democrats begin to consider Harris at the top of their ticket

As President Biden continues to face questions about whether he should end his bid to seek a second term, there are growing signs that many in the Democratic Party are willing to accept the notion of Vice President Harris at the top of their presidential ticket, a potentially significant shift.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) is signaling to members that Harris would be the best option to lead the ticket if Biden chooses to step aside, said two people familiar with this thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail private conversations.

Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.), a high-ranking member of the House and a longtime Biden friend, has publicly said he would support Harris if Biden stepped aside, adding that his fellow Democrats “should do everything to bolster her, whether she’s in second place or at the top of the ticket.”

Tim Ryan, a former Ohio congressman and presidential candidate, said in an op-ed that while he loves Biden, Harris should be the Democratic nominee for president after Biden stumbled in a high-profile debate performance last week. Some other possible contenders — including Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and California Gov. Gavin Newsom — probably wouldn’t jump in the race this year and would support Harris if Biden were to remove himself from the ticket, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Democrats’ growing move to rally around Harris as a potential nominee — almost always with the caveat that Biden remains the choice for now — is a sign that they are gaming out a world without Biden as the party’s standard-bearer, even as they try to blunt years of hand-wringing about Harris’s ability to win the White House on her own.

That could remove one of the major obstacles Democrats have long seen to the notion of replacing Biden: the fear that it would result in a damaging political free-for-all as the party’s most promising stars battle it out for the nomination.

Many Democrats are also worried that Harris would be a weak candidate, based in part on her ill-fated presidential run in 2020, when she was forced to drop out before a single vote was cast. But choosing someone instead of Harris, the first woman of color to serve as vice president, seemed politically untenable.

Now some in the party are rethinking the idea that Harris would flounder as the Democratic nominee, especially compared with Biden, given his struggles.

A CNN poll released Tuesday found that voters favor former president Donald Trump over Biden by six percentage points, 49 percent to 43 percent, similar to results from before the debate. But Harris performs better, trailing Trump 47 percent to 45 percent, a gap that falls within the margin of error.

And, some say, Harris could energize Democratic-leaning groups whose enthusiasm for Biden has faded — Black voters, young people and women. Some progressives say she could win back some voters who are disenchanted with Biden’s handling of the Israel-Gaza war.

Some of the shift in thinking is practical: With four months before Election Day on Nov. 5 — and early voting beginning weeks before that — picking anyone but Harris would represent a legal, political and financial minefield, according to interviews with more than a dozen political strategists and people close to the decisions of White House aspirants.

Choosing a new nominee outside the current ticket would raise questions about the status of the delegates that Biden and Harris have won — and the nearly quarter-billion dollars in their campaign coffers, money that cannot easily or perhaps even legally be handed to someone else.

Then there are the optics: Harris is the first Black woman to win a nationally elected office. Shunting her aside for someone White and possibly male could alienate the Black voters who the campaign says are key to winning the White House in 2024, and it could subject a party that prides itself on diversity to charges of hypocrisy.

Harris supporters also argue that many of the people often discussed as alternatives to Harris — Whitmer and Newsom, along with Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Rep. Ro Khanna (Calif.), Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro and Maryland Gov. Wes Moore — are popular in their home states and in Democratic circles but remain untested on the national stage.

“People want the president to be successful, but it’s unclear where we’re headed,” said Jamal Simmons, Harris’s former communications director. “And so as people begin to ponder if we had to do something else, what that something else would look like, who that someone else would be, the math leads you to Kamala Harris.”

While Harris has been singed by criticism, supporters say, she is a known quantity, both from her own presidential race and from her experience as the running mate on a 2020 Democratic ticket that faced withering attacks.

“I don’t know that Gretchen Whitmer going into Philadelphia is going to help turnout. I think Kamala Harris does,” said Mike Trujillo, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Hillary Clinton. “I don’t know if Gavin Newsom goes into Raleigh, North Carolina, or Charlotte, North Carolina, that he’s going to be able to turn out African Americans that are the base of the party. I think Kamala Harris can do that.”

Equally important, according to some strategists, is that voters say they are uninspired by the current rematch of two elderly men who have already served in the White House; Harris would present a younger face and a symbol of change. Biden is 81 and Trump is 78, while Harris is 59.

Still, there are many within the party who are not yet persuaded that Harris can win. Not only did her one presidential campaign collapse in disarray, they say, but she repeatedly stumbled early in her vice presidency.

Harris struggled, for example, when Biden asked her to tackle the root causes of illegal migration to the United States by working with leaders of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to improve conditions there. (Harris’s defenders say the president had handed her an impossible task.)

Others worry that Harris’s reputation as a California liberal, accurate or not, could alienate White centrists in the Midwestern suburbs that Democrats need to win. Some of these skeptics include major Democratic donors, suggesting that Harris could have a harder time than Biden raising campaign cash.

At the same time, Biden’s aides have forcefully insisted for months that he is Democrats’ best — or perhaps only — chance of beating Trump, an assertion that has done little to bolster party members’ views of Harris’s prospects.

Multiple Democrats who have said they would get behind Harris, however, point to her post-debate interview when she was had to balance a defense of Biden and the shaky debate performance millions of viewers saw. “That was a thankless job she had to do, and she did a very, very good job,” one senior House Democratic aide said.

But overall, there are signs that a growing number of Democrats can now envision a relatively smooth transition to a Harris-led ticket, especially if Biden throws his support behind her.

Beyond party leaders, rank-and-file Democrats have also begun vigorously discussing post-Biden scenarios. One Democrat in Texas, slated to be a delegate to the party’s convention in August, said it would be almost impossible at this late hour for someone like Newsom or Whitmer to win the nomination, then conduct a full-blown presidential campaign from scratch.

So the choices come down to Biden and Harris, this person said — and Harris would be better.

“As the only other option really being Vice President Harris, I think I would prefer that — and prefer the challenge of trying to drive up polling and drive up support — more than to keep support when we have a president going for reelection who may not have the best physical well-being,” the delegate said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.

Amid the intensifying conversations among Democrats, there are signs that Harris’s potential Democratic rivals are backing off — or being encouraged to back off.

Whitmer would not run for president this year and would be “all in” for Harris, according to a person close to the Michigan governor. Newsom has also hinted that he would back Harris, a fellow Californian. California lawmakers say they don’t believe he’d run this year.

“It’s got to be Kamala at the top and pairing her with someone new and dynamic and good could be super invigorating,” one Democratic California House member said.

A person close to Clyburn said the high-ranking Democrat had made his comments about Harris on MSNBC with the explicit goal of warning top Democrats against contemplating an alternate ticket not headed by Harris, should Biden step aside. Clyburn is an influential figure in the party, and other Democratic members have been sending a similar message to their colleagues who could be considering different rising stars to lead the ticket, according to a person who has been communicating this message.

Clyburn was “expressing his support for the president during this extraordinary period, and reminding voters and donors alike of his steadfast support for the second name on that ticket — Vice President Harris,” Marcus Mason, a DNC member, said.

Harris has so far refused to engage in any of the public strategizing. Since the debate, she has been Biden’s defender in chief, telling any camera in sight that voters should look at Biden’s successful 3½ years in office, not his 90 minutes of struggling in a debate.

In an interview with CBS News on Tuesday, Harris declined to answer a question about whether she is ready to lead the country if Biden is unable to, saying rather that she is “proud to be Joe Biden’s running mate.”

“Look, Joe Biden is our nominee,” Harris said. “We beat Trump once, and we’re going to beat him again. Period.”

Biden’s camp has said any discussion of a possible replacement is moot, since he is not pulling out. His campaign has tried to convince anxious supporters that despite a stumbling debate performance, he remains easily the best choice atop the party.

Jen O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s campaign chair, told donors at the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta on Friday that “nothing fundamentally changed in the race” despite the furor over the debate. And the campaign has touted strong fundraising numbers in the days since.

“Joe isn’t just the right person for the job,” first lady Jill Biden said at a Saturday fundraiser in East Hampton, N.Y. “He’s the only person for the job.”

Many Democrats privately say they like Harris personally and as a symbol of change, but they wonder how a politician who has at times struggled in the brightest spotlight would contend with a potentially bruising campaign, one that could feature racist and sexist dog whistles and perhaps more overt bigotry.

Harris’s supporters argue that her last two years have shown more strides than missteps. She became a leading voice on abortion rights after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, seizing on a central plank in the Democratic platform and one that Biden sometimes seems uncomfortable discussing.

Harris has traveled the country to attack Republicans for eroding Americans’ rights, courting conflict with some of the GOP’s most vocal antiabortion voices. She has met with dozens of global leaders, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky half a dozen times, developing a foreign policy portfolio she had earlier lacked.

Just as salient, supporters say, Harris is at the intersection of many of the principles Democrats say they stand for: diversity and inclusion, gender and racial equity. Some Democrats are coming to the conclusion that divorcing her from the ticket might speak louder than any campaign ad or messaging.

“At this moment, women feel under assault on abortion,” said Simmons, Harris’s former communications director. “People of color feel under assault on diversity and inclusion. It would be difficult to pick a ticket that does not include the first woman of color to be vice president.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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