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Harris faces questions about whether Iowa focus is too late

By JUANA SUMMERS, ALEXANDRA JAFFE and KATHLEEN RONAYNEOctober 3, 2019
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during a gun safety forum Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during a gun safety forum Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Kamala Harris is refocusing on Iowa in hopes that momentum there will reinvigorate a presidential campaign that is so far falling short of expectations. But the California senator has a problem: She may be too late.

Harris is hardly the first candidate to pin her hopes on Iowa to catapult herself to the nomination. John Kerry virtually stopped campaigning everywhere other than Iowa and New Hampshire in 2004 and ultimately became the Democratic Party’s nominee, though he lost the general election. And Barack Obama’s Iowa victory helped him prove his viability to wary voters in states later on the calendar.

Veterans of Iowa politics concede that the caucuses are notorious for their unpredictability, with plenty of candidates mounting come-from-behind wins. But they say success in the state often depends on relationship building that takes longer than a few months’ commitment.

“Other candidates have had a lot of time with Iowans,” said Marygrace Galston, Obama’s deputy state director in 2008. “It’s late in the game. It’s a tough state to play catch-up in.”

Nearly a dozen Harris aides, allies and supporters spoke with The Associated Press about her prospects, many on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal matters. Several said that if Harris wins Iowa, or performs strongly, it will put to rest questions about her “electability.”

As the only black woman among the Democratic contenders, she is facing a challenge similar to Obama’s in 2007, when the then-U.S. senator from Illinois silenced questions about his crossover appeal with a triumph in the January caucuses. A similar victory could slingshot Harris to states later in the calendar, including South Carolina and California.

“The only people counting out Kamala Harris are people who don’t know they shouldn’t count out a black woman,” said Bakari Sellers, a top surrogate for Harris’ campaign in South Carolina.

Harris hired her first Iowa staffers soon after officially launching her campaign in January. Her visit this weekend is her ninth to Iowa. But her campaign’s public statement that she was all-in on Iowa two weeks ago marked a tacit admission that her campaign needs to reconfigure its Iowa approach if she hopes to break out of the middle of the polling pack.

A September Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom poll found that 6% of likely caucusgoers said Harris would be their first choice for the nomination, putting her well behind Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden, who led all other candidates in the poll.

Harris returns to Iowa on Sunday after a two-week absence and on the heels of early October visits to Nevada and South Carolina, the states that follow Iowa and New Hampshire in the Democratic primary race. Her three-day trip will focus on suburban women, students and teachers.

Her Iowa staff says she’s begun a hiring push, though they declined to share details on how many staffers they’ve added so far. They also say they’ve opened two new offices in the state, with five more expected to open in the coming days.

She’s making time on this swing to meet more intimately with the super volunteers who make up their precinct-level leadership teams, the kinds of people who help run the campaign’s caucus-night operation.

Penny Rosfjord, a former chair of the Woodbury County Democratic Party who endorsed Harris recently, said she thought Harris still had plenty of time.

“Honestly, the only thing that matters is caucus time. If it was this time in 2016, Hillary Clinton would have won this state by 20 points over Bernie Sanders,” she said, referring to what was ultimately Clinton’s narrow victory. “So you take the temperature of what’s going on, but I don’t know how realistic it is.”

Still, some Harris supporters said they’d like to see the campaign accelerate. State Rep. Phyllis Thede, who represents a Davenport-area district, said she was planning to do more door-to-door canvassing for Harris but was waiting for instruction from the campaign.

“I need to get some direction from (the campaign) about what kinds of things they want us to take to the doors and call people on,” she said.

Harris advisers concede that the campaign struggled through a summer in which fundraising was a top priority, putting intense demands on the senator’s time. One described it as a necessary tradeoff to ensure that Harris had enough money to compete through the early state contests, but one that appears to have weakened her standing in those same states.

Harris raised $11.6 million over the past three months, roughly the same amount she’d raised in the prior two quarters.

The team is also working to beat back the narrative that her campaign is unstable, after reports that she had reorganized her senior staff, elevating her Senate chief of staff, Rohini Kosoglu, and a senior adviser, Laphonza Butler, into senior management positions. The staffing changes were first reported by Politico.

Harris said Wednesday in Las Vegas, where she was attending a gun policy forum, that her “strong” team has helped her become “by most accounts, one of the four top-tier candidates” in the presidential race.

“We have folks on the ground in all of the early states,” she said. “We have always had a plan that after Labor Day, there would be a ramp up to meet the needs and demands that we have to be present in these places and to accommodate the kind of enthusiasm that we’re seeing. I’m very proud of my team.”

People with knowledge of the decisions offered diverging explanations for why Harris’ campaign had decided to make some staffing changes. One described the recalibration as aimed in part at eliminating bottlenecks in decision-making, which have hampered communications strategy and interactions with supportive outside groups. Others pointed to the fact that no one was fired and that the staffers who were elevated had already been a part of Harris’ orbit and already bore significant responsibility to the campaign.

There is a general sense within the campaign and among donors that there is a problem and things need to change, said one person familiar with campaign discussions. But, the person added, there is also a sense of uncertainty as to whether the staffing shuffles would have much practical effect.

Matt Paul, a veteran Iowa Democratic operative who ran Clinton’s 2016 Iowa campaign, said it was important for Harris to keep the conversation focused on her message when she returns this weekend.

“What matters in Iowa is that she’s here, she’s on-message and her campaign is making their goals in terms of contacts, precinct captains. The nuts and bolts need to work,” he said. “That’s what should drive the attention on her campaign, not palace intrigue.”

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Summers reported from Washington and Ronayne reported from Sacramento, Calif. Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Emily Swanson in Washington, Michael R. Blood in Los Angeles and Errin Haines in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

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