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All eyes are on Harris after Biden dropped out and passed her the torch

Vice President Harris walks onstage at the 2024 Essence Festival in New Orleans on July 6.
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Vice President Harris walks onstage at the 2024 Essence Festival in New Orleans on July 6.

Updated July 21, 2024 at 19:32 PM ET

When Vice President Harris took the stage at the Essence Festival in New Orleans last month, she walked the audience through her life story: from growing up the child of Oakland, Calif., parents active in the civil rights movement, through some of the personal experiences that drove her to seek public office.

And she wrapped up her remarks with some lines she hasn’t used much since 2019, when they were a regular part of her stump speech as she sought the Democratic nomination.

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“People in your life will tell you, “It's not your time. It's not your turn. Nobody like you has done it before.’ One of the things I love is they'll say, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be a lot of hard work,’” Harris said.

President Biden and Vice President Harris at a White House event on artificial intelligence on October 30, 2023.
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President Biden and Vice President Harris at a White House event on artificial intelligence on October 30, 2023.

“Don't you ever listen to that. I like to say, I eat no for breakfast.”

The revival of this message came after calls in her party for Biden to step aside after he badly stumbled in his debate against former President Donald Trump.

After weeks of fiercely insisting he would stay in the race, Biden dropped out on Sunday, and threw his support behind Harris to take his place at the top of the ticket. Harris said she intends to "earn and win" the Democratic nomination during a truncated period ahead of the party's convention, which begins Aug. 19.

Some in the party want to see other young candidates compete in the race. But Harris, 59, will be a leading contender because she has a national — and international — profile that other Democrats on the bench lack. Elected Democrats were advocating for Harris even before Biden stepped aside, and in the immediate hours after she announced her own run, more than a dozen senators and more than 100 representatives quickly said they would back her.

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Vice President Harris arrives to deliver remarks on reproductive rights at the University of Maryland on June 24, 2024, the second anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling that overturned <em>Roe v. Wade</em>.
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Vice President Harris arrives to deliver remarks on reproductive rights at the University of Maryland on June 24, 2024, the second anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade.

Even before Biden dropped out, Trump and his campaign had signaled they planned to make Harris an issue in the campaign. They have argued she is not qualified for the job, is too left-wing, and have mocked her laugh in attack ads.

This line of attack was used in the 2020 race, too

Harris allies say the Trump campaign's fixation on Harris' laugh is an example of the kind of racism and sexism she has persistently faced on the national political stage.

“It’s not surprising to see this kind of attack from Trump,” said Karen Finney, a strategist who has worked for many female Democratic candidates.

In 2020, after Biden tapped Harris as his running mate, Trump perpetuated a racist birtherism conspiracy about Harris, saying she didn’t meet the requirements to be vice president, because her parents were born outside the United States.

President Biden and Vice President Harris view the fireworks on the National Mall from the White House balcony on July 4, 2024.
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President Biden and Vice President Harris view the fireworks on the National Mall from the White House balcony on July 4, 2024.

Finney said Trump has long used the tactic of “othering” women — including Harris — by mocking the sound of their voices to say that “‘There’s something about this person that isn’t like us.’”

Democrats celebrated Harris when she was picked for VP

Harris made history on several fronts when she and Biden won in 2020: the first woman in the role, the first Black person, the first Asian American person, the first graduate of a historically black college.

The daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father, Harris was a prosecutor who rose to become California’s attorney general.

She had made a national name for herself as a senator asking tough questions of Trump administration officials and nominees, including the televised confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Early stumbles fed doubts about Harris

Vice President Harris waves as she boards Air Force Two in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on March 23, 2024.
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Vice President Harris waves as she boards Air Force Two in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on March 23, 2024.

But being first — and managing lofty expectations — meant Harris was under "a magnifying glass" compared to her predecessors, said Rachel Palermo, who worked for Harris for the first few years of the administration. "I always felt like she had to overperform to get an average review," Palermo said.

And it took time for Harris to come into her own in a role where remaining in the background is part of the job description. “I think people expected her to keep that bully pulpit that she had in the Senate, and that's just not the role of the vice president,” said Democratic pollster Terrance Woodbury, founder of HIT Strategies.

Early on, Harris struggled to find her footing. One of her first assignments from Biden was to tackle the intractable root causes of migration, and her first foreign trip was to Guatemala and Mexico City. She was criticized for going nowhere near the southern U.S. border, until weeks later.

But in a television interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, she misstepped with a defensive, flippant answer to why she hadn’t first visited the southern U.S. border, an exchange that overshadowed her work on the issue.

Harris also took on the issue of voting rights, an issue where she gave lofty speeches but one where real legislative solutions were impossible, given the deeply partisan divides in Congress.

There were a series of staff shake-ups, and Harris often seemed uncomfortable and stilted in the limelight. Republican critics mocked her not only for what she said, but how she said it.

Vice President Harris boards Air Force Two in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on March 22, 2024.
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Vice President Harris boards Air Force Two in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on March 22, 2024.

Harris’ approval ratings remained persistently low — as did Biden’s. Even some Democrats wondered if she ought to stay on the ticket for 2024: the theory was that a more popular running mate could do more to quell voter concerns that Biden, 81, was too old for another four years in the job. Instead, from the start, the re-elect branded itself as the Biden-Harris campaign.

The Supreme Court’s abortion ruling was a turning point

The vice president was on her way to an event about maternal health when she learned that the Supreme Court had struck down Roe v. Wade, the constitutional right to an abortion.

“We were in the car and she was reading the majority opinion line by line,” recalled Rohini Kosoglu, who was a long-time adviser to Harris. “She rewrote her entire speech from scratch, noting to us that it was not solely a woman’s issue. At the heart of this was a health care crisis.”

Harris, who had long championed reproductive rights, now had a clear mission.

Vice President Harris and President Biden at a rally at Girard College in Philadelphia on May 29, where they launched a nationwide campaign to court black voters. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/Getty Images)
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Vice President Harris and President Biden at a rally at Girard College in Philadelphia on May 29, where they launched a nationwide campaign to court black voters. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/Getty Images)

“We have been on the frontlines of this fight for many years, all of us in this together. And now we enter a new phase. There is nothing hypothetical about this moment,” she told a crowd at the 2022 Emily’s List gala.

It was an issue where Harris brought a passion and ease to the discussion that Biden — a devout Catholic — has been unable to muster.

And it was an issue voters cared deeply about. The White House put her front and center, rallying the troops, leading round tables across the country, meeting with patients, doctors, and advocates. And when Democrats pulled in better-than-expected results in the November 2022 midterms, that was, in part, credited to Harris.

Harris has continued to be the main messenger on the issue ever since, inviting abortion providers to the White House and even visiting a clinic that provides abortions and other reproductive care — making history as the first president or vice president to do so.

Harris has become a liaison to young Democrats and voters of color

Vice President Harris gives an address to youth gathered on Black Star Square in Accra, Ghana, on March 28, 2023.
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Vice President Harris gives an address to youth gathered on Black Star Square in Accra, Ghana, on March 28, 2023.

Harris has quietly worked on building foreign policy experience over the past few years. She has met with more than 150 world leaders, represented the White House at key meetings of global leaders on Ukraine and climate, and traveled to 21 countries as vice president.

Rashad Robinson, who has known Harris since she was California's attorney general, traveled with her to Ghana as part of a U.S. delegation. "I felt like the VP was in her zone" on the trip, Robinson said, describing the crowd of thousands who packed Accra's Black Star Square to see her.

"You know, she's the first to take on this role and no one's looked like her or had her story or her background. And I believe a lot of folks had to catch up," said Robinson, president of Color Of Change.

But Harris has changed, too. "I do feel like just seeing her out in public and speaking, there's just a level of comfort and ease that is there that just looks and feels different from the earlier days," Robinson said.

Harris has more forcefully called for a ceasefire in Gaza before Biden did – while her positions were in line with his policy, her emphasis was seen as more savvy by Democrats concerned that Biden’s unqualified support for Israel could erode his support on the left.

Harris has also tried to connect with young voters and voters of color, parts of the Democratic base where Biden has struggled. Harris has invited more women and minorities to meetings at the White House, visited dozens of college campuses and has continued to speak at countless Black and Latino conventions.

Vice President Harris observes a moment of silence for victims of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on March 23, 2024.
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Vice President Harris observes a moment of silence for victims of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on March 23, 2024.

“She was really interested in hearing about the direct experiences of women who, frankly, have been really invisible in administrations, and, in general, in politics,” Ai-jen Poo, the co-founder of the National Domestic Workers told NPR in early 2022. Poo had met with Harris on four different occasions during the vice president’s first year in office to discuss issues concerning women in the workforce.

Harris has also played a leading role on gun violence prevention, overseeing a new White House office. Before it was torn down, she visited the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School building where 14 students and 3 adults were killed in a mass shooting in 2018.

Vice President Harris and President Biden depart the East Room after delivering remarks on artificial intelligence at the White House on Oct. 30, 2023.
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Vice President Harris and President Biden depart the East Room after delivering remarks on artificial intelligence at the White House on Oct. 30, 2023.

Gun violence prevention is among the top three issues in this election for more than a quarter of voters aged 18-34, according to a Tufts poll.

Harris’ fans see her as an heir apparent. But some Democrats have other ideas

Harris ran for the Democratic nomination against Biden and a crowded field, but short on money and down in the polls, her campaign fizzled and she dropped out of the race two months before anyone had even started voting in the 2020 primaries.

In this truncated primary ahead of the Democratic convention, she comes into the party battle with an advantage. Her name is already on the ticket, and she has more name recognition than any other potential candidate. Almost immediately, the Biden-Harris campaign was renamed "Harris for President."

And she has built up relationships with supporters in battleground states, making more than 60 trips in total this year, touting the accomplishments of the Biden administration and warning against a return to Trump.

In the weeks before Biden dropped out, she forcefully backed him staying in the race, but carried on campaigning, even when Biden was sidelined with COVID. Last week, she gave one of her most forceful speeches of the campaign in what amounted to a final argument against Trump and his running mate on the final day of the Republican National Convention.

On Friday, she did some retail campaigning at an ice cream shop, with her grand-nieces in tow, and on Saturday, she was raising money on Cape Cod, where hundreds of Democratic donors cheered and waved fans imprinted with "Veeptown," a play on P-Town, as the beach town known for its LGBTQ history and community is called.

Vice President Harris takes selfies with guests during an Independence Day event on the South Lawn of the White House on July 4, 2024.
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Vice President Harris takes selfies with guests during an Independence Day event on the South Lawn of the White House on July 4, 2024.

In the first five hours of her new presidential campaign, ActBlue said small-dollar donors contributed more than $27 million.

There has been speculation about other potential candidates — including a long list of Democratic governors — who could challenge Harris as heir apparent. Some of them were quick to endorse her on Sunday, too.

Mini Timmaraju, president of Reproductive Freedom for All, had wanted Biden to stay in the race — but before he dropped out, she said that it would be "political malpractice" for Democrats to go with someone other than Harris, who she said galvanizes support from women and from voters of color.

Vice President Harris campaigns in Landover, Md., on June 7, 2024.
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Vice President Harris campaigns in Landover, Md., on June 7, 2024.

"She is leading on the number one persuasion issue in this country: reproductive freedom," Timmaraju said. "She's not just the top spokesperson — she's been the person leading the strategy."

Black women are a key part of the Democratic party base, and prominent Black woman have said they expect Harris to ascend.

“She's sitting right there as somebody who has been in the White House, as somebody who already has the name recognition, who's already out on the trail,” said Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pa., in a recent interview, explaining the "optics of pushing aside a Black woman" would be a mistake for the party.

Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, a group that works with Black voters, said overlooking Harris would be offensive. "The thing they don't want to do is jump over the Black vice president. It's absurd,” she said.

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