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Why VP Harris is seen as critical to Biden's reelection campaign

Vice President Kamala Harris disembarks Air Force 2 at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport in St. Paul, Minn., on March 14, as part of a series of events on protecting reproductive rights.
Stephen Maturen
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AFP via Getty Images
Vice President Kamala Harris disembarks Air Force 2 at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport in St. Paul, Minn., on March 14, as part of a series of events on protecting reproductive rights.

Vice President Kamala Harris is on a mission to court a distinct part of the Democratic base.

"She's really been mobilizing a lot of the voters that we need ... like young people, women, voters of color," said Sheila Nix, Harris's chief of staff for the 2024 reelection campaign.

These groups were all critical to President Biden's victory in 2020, but polls suggest his support among young voters and voters of color is slipping. Some Democrats see Harris, a 59-year-old Black and Asian woman, as being better able to motivate these key blocs by leaning into her personal experience and perspective than the 81-year-old Biden.

So she's not just traveling the country for the president, as a vice president typically would in an election year. She's tasked with trying to re-engage voting groups that Democrats desperately need to win reelection.

Harris has been crisscrossing the country talking about issues that'll energize those core constituencies, and she frames it all as a part of a broader fight for freedom.

This past month, Harris has discussed marijuana legalization at the White House with rapper Fat Joe, toured a clinic that provides abortions in Minnesota — a first for any president or vice president — and visited the bullet-pocked classroom in Parkland, Fla., where a gunman killed 14 students and three staff members in 2018.

How it's going

Despite the assumption that Harris might be able to reactivate key voters, she, like Biden, has had persistently low approval ratings in polls.

But Terrance Woodbury, founder of HIT strategies, a polling firm where he focuses on voters of color, thinks the polls don't tell the complete story.

"One thing we found since 2020 is that the vice president's approval rating and favorability is in lockstep with the president. She's tethered to him — for better or for worse," he said.

In her pitch to those super voters, the issue that Harris is championing the loudest is abortion.

"The vice president has become sort of the leader in the Democratic Party of talking to young voters, suburban women voters on choice and on reproductive rights," said Jim Messina, campaign manager for Barack Obama's 2012 reelection effort. "That's her sweet spot."

Messina says this is vitally important.

"The problem with reelection campaigns is you're unlikely to get as many votes as you did last time because now you have a record, and [so] you really do need to turn out core constituencies," he said.

Democrats are hoping anger over abortion will help them do that. Harris has held more than 80 events on reproductive rights since Roe v. Wade was overturned in June 2022.

"She's been a champion of these issues for a very long time," said Mini Timmaraju, president of Reproductive Freedom for All. "And, look, she's much more authentic and much more persuasive on this issue than anyone else in the administration."

Timmaraju sees Harris as having a level of credibility in discussing abortion, dating back to her years as attorney general in California. In comparison, Biden, a practicing Catholic, has been uneasy discussing the issue in the past and rarely uses the word "abortion" — opting instead for broader appeals to protecting reproductive rights.

What the challenge is

Vice President Kamala Harris links arms with civil rights attorney Ben Crump (right) and the Rev. Al Sharpton (left) in a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge during a commemoration of the 59th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., on March 3.
Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Vice President Kamala Harris links arms with civil rights attorney Ben Crump (right) and the Rev. Al Sharpton (left) in a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge during a commemoration of the 59th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., on March 3.

Harris's goal of trying to activate the Democratic base has become more complicated in recent months with the ongoing war in Gaza. Polls suggest many young voters are dissatisfied with how Biden has handled the conflict.

And Harris, like Biden, routinely faces protesters outside events, and sometimes even inside, interrupting her. In California in January, for example, Harris was trying to call out Republicans for new abortion laws when she was interrupted for roughly 30 seconds by repeated calls for a cease-fire.

One big challenge for Harris is how she navigates these polarizing issues. Analysts say it matters more than normal because she's running alongside the oldest president in American history.

"There's going to be more attention focused on the possibility of succession than there would be if you had presidential candidates on the two tickets who were in their 40s or 50s," said Joel Goldstein, a professor at the Saint Louis University School of Law and an expert on the vice presidency.

The subtext surrounding everything Harris does during this reelection campaign is whether she's ready to become president herself.

She's asked an iteration of this question fairly often. "Listen, as it relates to me, I'm ready, if necessary, but it's not going to be necessary," she told NBC recently.

The challenge for Harris is that she has to convince people she's competent — without having the power to set the policy she's talking about. The vice presidency is inherently about being the No. 2.

"From a statutory perspective, your roles and responsibilities — the duties of the job — are rather limited, so your ability to convey competency is largely in your words," said Devin O'Malley, who served as press secretary to former Vice President Mike Pence.

Republicans like O'Malley say Harris gets tripped up in her words, making it hard for her to persuade people that she could step into the top job.

Democrats seem to be trying to quiet the critics head-on in recent months. Harris has been more visible, doing a number of interviews and delivering various high-profile remarks, such as earlier this month in Selma, Ala., to commemorate Bloody Sunday where she gave some of the strongest remarks up to that point about humanitarian aid in Gaza.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.