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CNN Exclusive: Harris says she and Biden ‘have to earn our reelect’

President Joe Biden tends to brush off bad polls and insist that there are eight that show him beating Donald Trump for every two that show him losing.

Vice President Kamala Harris, confronted with those same polls, is much less dismissive.

“We’re going to have to earn our reelect, there’s no doubt about it,” the vice president told CNN in an exclusive phone interview from Air Force Two after spending just over an hour in South Carolina on a trip to officially file Biden for the Democratic primary there.

Polling nationally and in battleground states alike suggests the president, who turns 81 on Monday, is weak with young voters, as well as with Black and other voters of color. Overall, Biden and Harris hold similar approval ratings, but Harris’ ratings among these key subgroups have varied, suggesting views of the vice president are not as deeply entrenched. Several Harris insiders have optimistically pointed to the New York Times/Siena College polls of battleground states released this month, which showed “11 percent of Ms. Harris’s would-be supporters do not back Mr. Biden, and two-thirds of them are either nonwhite or younger than 30,” according to The Times.

That has created an uncomfortable dynamic for the Biden team in Wilmington, Delaware, and the West Wing that has mythologized his connection with voters as being stronger than polls can measure and where some are still carrying grudges from the Democratic primary race. Harris is consistently rating better – which, to a growing number of Democrats, means that if Biden wants a second term in an election that Biden aides are forecasting will be won by slivers of votes, he will need to rely on her help to get there.

But they need to lean into that marginal advantage without exposing her so much that she proves a liability with voters who don’t like her – including those whom Republican presidential candidates are trying to appeal to by warning that Biden actuarially might not make it through a second term, and a vote for him might end up with Harris in the Oval Office.

“People were saying, ‘The VP is a drag on the ticket,’” South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, who boosted Biden in 2020, said after joining Harris for the filing. “Now they’re saying just the opposite.”

“I absolutely think she can move voters,” said Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Austin Davis, a 34-year-old African American in one of the target demographics the Biden campaign is desperate to improve with, in a state the president needs to carry.

“A vital part of the formula” is the assessment of Lavora Barnes, a Black woman herself who is the Democratic Party chair in battleground Michigan.

While several people close to Harris say that it might be too late to return to the days when she was seen as an embodiment of the future, they see 2024 as her best and perhaps last chance for a major political reboot – hoping that by maximizing her time on the trail, she can defy the seemingly constant narrative during her time as vice president of stumbles and missed moments.

A new abortion rights-focused tour of battleground states is being planned for the beginning of the year, and Harris is also looking for moments to call out the need for more action on gun violence in a continuation of what became one of the most distinctive elements of her summer college tour. Aides said they are hoping to get her to embrace more fully the lead attacker role that running mates often go for, swinging hard with contrast as Biden is expected to stick more with the “Americans working together to get past Trump” approach.

After months of several sought after hires turning her down, she has been looking to bring on her own political strategist – “a Mike Donilon type” is how her team talks about it, referring to the president’s longest and closest senior adviser – though some on Biden’s team have been resistant, feeling that they already have Donilon himself and don’t need a Harris cook in the kitchen. (Harris aides said they have already gotten used to dayslong email chains waiting for West Wing aides to sign off on her hitting the road and worrying over costs that would need to be covered by a reelection campaign still not raising money at the clip it hoped for.)

Meanwhile, Democratic strategists closely involved with taking what they believe is realistic stock of the president’s capacity are already looking at her to pick up the slack not just on the campaign trail, but by popping up with TikTok influencers (she was the top surrogate for influencer conversations during the midterms, racking up over a dozen) or mixing it up on Black drive time radio. There are things that Biden won’t or can’t do – because of the care staff takes not to exhaust him, because they would be too demeaning for the leader of the free world to do or simply because he’s busy with the wars in Ukraine and Israel, and in a never-ending cycle of trying to keep the government open.

Asked about how she envisions her time on the trail, Harris started with a typical deconstruction of the premise as she flicked it away: “To be honest, I’ve not compared this cycle with what previous vice presidents have done in a reelect.”

“But,” Harris went on, “I have a great sense of duty and responsibility to do as much as I can, to be where the people are and to not only speak with them, but listen to them and let them know what we’ve accomplished.”

Her experience so far out and about, Harris said, has informed her sense of how tricky this is going to be.

“It is absolutely right in a democracy with free and fair elections that the candidates, the people who want to continue in leadership have to make their case, and have to make it effectively,” Harris told CNN. “And that means communicating in such a way that the message is received about the accomplishments and what we care about.”

Communication and messaging advice from a vice president who has become infamous for “word salad” answers might make some political insiders laugh. This is a politician, after all, whose staff the night before a scheduled speech to the most core party members at the Democratic National Committee meeting last month in St. Louis replaced it with a “fireside chat” moderated by her outside adviser and former DNC chair Donna Brazile, worried that otherwise she would struggle to come across, people involved in the switch-up told CNN.

That format was adopted from the one she had been using on her popular tour of colleges in the summer and early fall – with an aide acknowledging the problems she has faced.

“She is a human, and these moderated conversations are a way for people to see that part of her,” the aide said. That tour proved to be a learning experience for her, giving her the direct voter feedback and engagement that led her to hammer staff to distill phrases like “freedom to not just survive but thrive” into something more relatable: “freedom to live your best life” or, sometimes, “freedom to just be.”

That’s part of what she thinks the campaign needs to do too, Harris told CNN. When it comes to appealing to Black voters who feel checked out from a government and political system, which they feel keeps on coming up short on promises to meaningfully improve their lives, the vice president can quickly tick through the administration’s record on funding historically Black colleges and universities, dropping insulin prices and increasing affordable housing.

But she knows that isn’t resonating as much as she would like.

“In some ways,” Harris said, “actually, probably there’s a hindrance, in that the list is really long, and we have to triage around what we repeat over and over again to make sure that it resonates and it’s actually heard.”

‘Can she step up?’

In May, the Democratic women’s political group Emily’s List finished polling that had just been completed to inform the efforts they had begun to promote Harris. For all the hits she has taken on social media and all the devastating articles that have left her and the people around her feeling burned and on guard, their research showed that most voters still knew almost nothing about her at all.

The vice president did not get a direct briefing on the results, but the way the numbers were laid out in a memo to the group’s top donors quickly made it back to her team.

They focused on “gettable” voters – wavering Democrats and independents open to voting for Democrats – in battleground states. A third of voters knew almost nothing about who she was or what she has been doing, but when asked to rate issues that will get them to vote, abortion was at the top, followed by gun violence protection and racial justice. Give those voters information about her, according to people who have seen the polling results, and they could significantly improve answers to questions like, “Do you think she’s ready to be president?” and “Is she a good partner to Biden?” When told that many of those top issues are in Harris’s portfolio, they tracked massive upticks in independents and “soft partisan” non-core Democrats in how they felt about Biden, and whether they were motivated to vote for him.

“I get that on the doors – ‘What has she done?’ ‘Can she step up?’” said Rozia Henson, who at 30 just won a campaign to be the first out gay, Black member of the Virginia House of Delegates. A proud member of the online obsessive “K-hive,” he said he spent his whole campaign hearing voters tell him they don’t want a Biden-Trump rematch.

“I think we’d be having a way different conversation if it were two White males as president and vice president,” Henson said. “It’s a little bit different when you see people like yourself tell the stories of how they changed things that affect your daily life.”

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said he was struck by how much people connected with Harris when she appeared at a rally he hosted in Raleigh on the anniversary of the Dobbs decision earlier this year.

In a state that the Biden campaign has made a top target for picking up next year, Cooper told CNN that Harris “is in a unique position to deliver the message to a number of people that may be more receptive to talking about the good things that they’ve done and talking about what will happen to people’s rights and freedoms if extreme Republicans win this election.”

Quentin Fulks, one of Biden’s deputy campaign managers, said in an interview that he expects this to play to the strengths that first made Harris a political star, from grilling Republicans in Senate hearings to her original “prosecutor for president” pitch when she first launched her own 2020 White House campaign.

“Being a prosecutor is in her blood. Litigating what the election is about is in her blood,” Fulks said, describing that as complementary to Biden’s empathetic and usually more soft-pedaled approach, even with his recent uptick in jabs at Trump. “It’s what’s most comfortable to her. And what you’re most comfortable about, you’re going to do well.”

Because Harris’ presidential campaign was over before most people started paying attention – she dropped out ahead of the nominating contests – and her time as a running mate in a campaign that was defined by pandemic social distancing and car rallies, almost no one has seen her as a full-fledged candidate out on the trail.

That includes Fulks, who, despite helping run the campaign, had never himself seen Harris stump in person before joining her for that South Carolina trip.

“In Washington, DC, she’s the leader and she’s next up,” Fulks said. “But on the trail, it’s something special to watch and it’s very different.”

Harris continues to get subsumed – though she is the point person for the new White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention, Biden was still the one who took the lead on commenting on the Maine mass shooting three weeks later and the one to travel there, and her college tour was cut short by making sure she was in the meetings (and being photographed in the meetings) on the Israel-Gaza crisis. But she’s been pushing back on that. She joined the event in South Carolina she wasn’t initially scheduled to be at. Two days earlier, she popped up on the White House driveway to give reporters her own reaction to the off-year election results – to the consternation of some on the president’s staff who didn’t like that she was doing it without warning and that she did it while the daily press briefing was happening a few feet away inside.

Harris quickly shoots down any hint that campaigning would conflict with being an integral part of the administration every day, and quickly rattles off what she has been doing on artificial intelligence, the APEC leaders conference and more.

“All of it is connected,” she said.

Trying to get young people to see themselves in an old president

In Nevada, some polls show a challenging landscape for Biden. Daniele Monroe-Moreno, speaker pro tempore of the Nevada legislature and the new chair of the state’s Democratic Party, said that the issue goes beyond how to talk about Biden’s record. As devoted as she is to Biden, Monroe-Moreno said, his hardscrabble Irish Catholic childhood stories from Scranton in the 1940s only go so far. She herself is about Harris’ age, is also married to a Jewish man, had a more up-to-date version of struggles growing up and has a more mixed family now.

“The president’s story resonates with my mom and with me. But Kamala and our history really resonates with me,” Monroe-Moreno said. “Where she is now as the vice president of the United States lets Black voters and women voters know there is a pathway forward for us in this country.”

Monroe-Moreno said she saw that ring true for the younger voters who filled a room when Harris was at the College of Southern Nevada last month.

“They weren’t just Black and brown kids, they were White kids who look to her as a leader for the future,” she said.

“President Biden is wise, knowledgeable, tested – she’s passionate and seasoned,” said Tucson Mayor Regina Romero, who just won a second term in the second largest city in battleground Arizona. “Communities of color and young people, they absorb that passion from her.”

In the interview, Harris ticked through the administration’s record on fighting climate change, reducing gun violence that has become a standard part of going to school or walking down the street for a generation and protecting reproductive rights. She built up to a line primed for a teleprompter: “The president has been resolute, he has been firm, he has been consistent on seeing the challenges that young people in America face and addressing them with real solutions.”

But asked why young people should see themselves in a president who is old enough to be older than many of their grandparents, Harris was a little less formal.

“It is they,” Harris said in thinking about the election winner, “who are going to either benefit from or pay the price.”

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