MIAMI _ For weeks, supporters of Sen. Kamala Harris had pointed to the first Democratic debate as the opportunity to break out of her campaign doldrums.
What no one said _ and few would have predicted _ was that she would do so by taking on the candidate at center stage, former Vice President Joe Biden, upbraiding him for his opposition to busing for school integration and his nostalgic reminiscences about his relationships with segregationist senators early in his career.
“I do not believe you are a racist,” Harris began, turning to face Biden. But, she added, “it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.
“And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”
Biden, sputtering in response, declared Harris’ accusation “a mischaracterization of my position across the board.” He rattled off civil rights measures he had supported in his long career as a senator and tried to defend his opposition to busing during the 1970s and 1980s.
“I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education,” he said, reprising the states’-rights position that he, as a senator from a border state with a history of segregation, had taken decades earlier.
Harris shot back: “That’s where the federal government must step in, that’s why we have the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act … because there are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people.”
The ambush seemed carefully planned. Harris’ campaign aides were armed with photos of the candidate as a little girl, which they tweeted out moments after the clash. It was a surprising risk for Harris, a candidate often described as cautious to a fault. But it provided the capstone for a debate performance that showcased her strengths.
One of the chief applause lines in Harris’ stump speech has been her pledge to “prosecute the case against four more years of Donald Trump,” as she put it in her closing statement Thursday night.
Harris gained national attention over the last couple of years by virtue of her prosecutor’s instinct and the verbal dexterity that she displayed cross-examining administration officials in Senate hearings. Her willingness to confront Biden — and ability to throw him off balance — could remind many Democrats of what they hope she could do to Trump in a general election.
And the fact that the clash turned on an issue of race highlighted her status as the only black candidate on Thursday’s stage, an important point not only for many African Americans but also for white voters who want the party to stand for diversity.
Biden’s deputy campaign manager, Kate Bedingfield, told reporters afterward that his campaign was “satisfied with the outcome of the debate.”
“He’s the front-runner. People were going to take swings at him, trying to create a moment, trying to score points. It’s a debate. We understand that,” she said. “He listened respectfully. She told her story very powerfully. But he was clear that he was not going to engage.”
The exchange did not hurt Biden’s standing, she insisted. “I think people saw him listening intently and honestly to a very powerful story from Senator Harris.”
Whether that is so won’t be known for several days as pollsters gauge voter reaction. But unlike general elections, in which debates seldom have a lasting effect on candidate standings, primaries can often feature rapid ups and downs.
None of the other candidates in either of the debate’s two nights went after Biden in any sustained way. Harris’ decision to do so could backfire: With a multi-candidate field, voters sometimes respond to attacks by turning away from both the attacker and the target and moving toward a neutral party, longtime Democratic strategist Bill Carrick said.
“Are there risks involved? Of course there are,” he said. “But she has to take a risk. She’s not going to win if she doesn’t.”