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Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris pushes the envelope as Biden struggles with some Democrats

Trevor Hunnicutt
Reuters

March 29 (Reuters) - Hosting rapper Fat Joe at the White House to talk about reforming marijuana laws. Visiting an abortion clinic. Calling for a ceasefire in Gaza at the historic Selma bridge in Alabama. Walking the bloodstained crime scene of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris has stepped out of the shadow of President in recent weeks as part of a high-profile effort to persuade the fractious coalition of voters who sent them to the White House to give them a second term.

Vice President Kamala Harris stands in the House of Representatives ahead of the State of the Union address.

Harris' evolving role comes as progressive Democrats target Biden over his pro-Israel stance, polls show him in a tight race against Republican rival .

As left-leaning voters question Biden's age and leadership, a problem Trump doesn't face with his core voters, the 59-year-old Harris is taking on more heated topics, more often and more directly than Biden. While some have knocked Harris's performance as vice president and value to the reelection campaign in the past, she's moved into a starring role.

Biden has defended abortion rights but emphasized women whose lives are in danger, and called it a "deeply private and painful" matter.

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Harris has gone further - during a visit to Planned Parenthood in Minneapolis, believed to be the first time a sitting vice president has visited an abortion clinic, the former senator described abortion as a basic part of women's healthcare in vivid terms.

"Everyone get ready for the language: uterus," she said. "Issues like fibroids — we can handle this — breast cancer screenings, contraceptive care — that is the kind of work that happens here, in addition, of course, to abortion care."

In Selma, she delivered the strongest comments at that point by any U.S. official on : "Given the immense scale of suffering in Gaza, there must be an immediate ceasefire."

Her use of the word "ceasefire," a term left-leaning Democrats were so eager to hear that it had become a rallying cry, was cheered by some, although others demanded it be met with policy changes, too. Harris also pushed Israel to do more to ease what she called a "humanitarian catastrophe" in Gaza.

"There is no doubt the vice-president has tried to move the conversation about Gaza to a more empathetic place but introducing new language falls flat when there is no evidence she's pushing for a more meaningful policy shift," said Abbas Alawieh, a top official for a campaign urging voters to protest Biden by voting "uncommitted" in the Democratic primaries.

"She needs to push Biden harder to change U.S. policy," he said.

Current and former Harris aides disputed the idea of any difference in policy between Biden, characterizing their efforts as a difference in tone and emphasis. They said Harris' initiatives are a reflection of areas of interest that, in some cases, date back to her time as a prosecutor.

"She's been on the leading edge of some of the most important issues facing the country, and certainly [those] that are going to be determinative of the election," said Dave Cavell, a former Harris speechwriter.

Biden cannot emphasize divisive cultural issues without alienating more conservative voters he needs to win, current and former aides said. As the Democrats' "coalition leader" he needs to focus on the core economic issues that will sway centrists, they said.

To that end, he has used 11 of his 16 trips this year to competitive election states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania to promote "kitchen table" economic policies like bringing back manufacturing jobs shipped overseas and supporting unions.

Harris, the first Black, Asian and woman vice president, instead, is embracing a pugilistic role, with a "Fight for Reproductive Freedoms" tour and a "Fight for Our Freedoms" college tour, in addition to talking about the economy.

Another challenge for Harris

Biden has assigned Harris a number of seemingly intractable issues during her vice presidency, from the decades-old problem of migration to the U.S. southern border to pushing back on a generations-old pattern of limiting voting rights for left-leaning Americans.

Winning back parts of the Democratic coalition that has fractured over Israel policy, immigration and the economy is another big challenge.

Harris's approval ratings hover under 40%, but she is also the U.S.'s most popular Democratic politician after Biden. Some White House aides have privately questioned her effectiveness as an administration spokesperson.

Reuters/Ipsos polling that shows Biden and Trump tied nationally also reveals a majority of women, people under 40 and Latinos disapprove of Biden's performance as president. Each group favored Biden in 2020, helping him beat Trump.

Only 56% of Black people approved of Biden's job performance, low figures for a group that typically votes 9-to-1 for Democrats in presidential elections.

If Trump wins white voters, the largest U.S. racial group, for the third election in a row, Biden needs a dominant showing among a diverse set of groups that typically favor Democrats.

There are some signs that Harris is in for a tough fight.

On a trip to San Juan last week also aimed at courting the 5.9 million Puerto Rican Latinos who live in the mainland United States, Harris' arrival at a community center to celebrate the Caribbean island's culture was shouted down by demonstrators.

Some chanted "Yankee, go home" and held signs calling Harris a "war criminal" for the Biden administration's support of Israel in response to Hamas' Oct. 7 attack, despite a mounting Gaza death toll. Such protests have occurred at multiple Harris events.

She has an increasingly vocal fan in Biden, though, who once wrestled with the decision of whether to make her his running mate in 2020. Harris has worked carefully to make sure that she doesn't appear out of sync with her boss, describing Biden and her on March 4 as "aligned and consistent from the very beginning" on Gaza.

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