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Harris steps up her role as ambassador to voters shaky on Biden

NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Speaking to a crowd speckled with Latino faces and ticking off endorsements from the Latino community, Vice President Harris talked about her family’s own immigration story, focusing on her mother, who first set foot on U.S. soil at the age of 19 and went on to raise a daughter who became a history-making figure.

“Like so many of the leaders in this room, my mother raised my sister and me to understand the value of hard work, the importance of community and the responsibility that we each have to each other,” Harris told a crowd of about 200 on a recent Saturday afternoon here.

Carolina Avila and her daughter grew emotional as they watched Harris, a fellow woman of color, speak of her background, the Biden administration’s accomplishments and the work that remains. But Avila, an immigrant from Chile, was concerned that Harris’s message — delivered to a roomful of loyal Democrats — would not resonate with friends and neighbors who are not already sold on the party’s promises.

“I’m worried,” said Avila, 50, president of the local Chilean American Association. “I think more work needs to be done to spread what we heard here, to educate the Latino community. That has me worried.”

As the campaign for the White House intensifies, Harris has been thrust to the forefront of President Biden’s efforts to hang on to young and minority voters — groups that are vital to his reelection but that may be losing enthusiasm for his candidacy. This month, Harris has championed a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in Nevada, discussed marijuana legalization in the White House with rapper Fat Joe, and called for a cease-fire in Gaza at a commemoration of Bloody Sunday in Alabama. On Friday, she was in Puerto Rico to highlight the administration’s support for the territory.

That sometimes leaves the two Democratic candidates — Biden, 81, and Harris, 59 — courting different parts of the coalition that helped Biden win the presidency. Biden won in 2020 in part by attracting moderate White voters wary of President Donald Trump. And while he also did well with people of color and young voters, recent polls show an erosion of support from those blocs.

Many in this camp seem more receptive to Harris’s outreach, judging by her recent appearances, but it is not clear whether that will be enough to win them back.

A recent New York Times-Siena College poll found Trump slightly leading Biden with Latinos, by 6 percentage points, after 2020 exit polls showed Biden winning this group by 33 points. In 2020 exit polls, Black voters favored Biden by 75 points, but the recent poll found Biden’s current margin at 43 points, with 66 percent supporting him and 23 percent backing Trump.

In interviews, many of these voters expressed frustration with Biden’s handling of a variety of issues, including the Israel-Gaza war, inflation, voting rights and immigration. Some have raised questions about what exactly Biden has done for them in his first term, often fretting about the rising cost of living.

Increasingly, Biden’s team hopes Harris can provide an answer to these concerns.

In addition to stops in Latino-heavy Phoenix and North Las Vegas, Harris has been headlining events on reproductive freedom. Last year, she visited colleges with large Black and Latino populations, often turning out big crowds. In each case, she comes armed with talking points on how Biden has helped minorities and appeals to help him finish the job.

Her most potent argument might be one that goes unvoiced: that as a vice president who is Black, Asian American and female — and more than two decades younger than Biden — she offers a guarantee that those communities’ interests will be represented at the White House.

It remains to be seen whether that is a persuasive message for those dissatisfied with what Biden has delivered. In an interview with The Washington Post, Harris declined to assess her effectiveness as a messenger, saying that will be up to voters.

“They’re going to decide that, right? I’m not going to decide that,” Harris said. “But I view it as my responsibility — in the context of, frankly, my career — to make sure that I am being available, accessible and that I’m listening. It’s just important to me to do that.”

For Harris, who sought the White House in 2020 and is widely expected to make another bid, courting Black, Latino and young voters is not just about what happens eight months from now. It is also about fostering long-lasting relationships with key Democratic constituencies.

Young Latinos, for example, are one of the fastest-growing populations in the country. Almost 1 in 5 U.S. Hispanics are ages 18-29, according to the Pew Research Center.

Harris, who grew up in California, said she has always been sensitive to the concerns of Latinos.

“I care deeply about it, both in terms of the history and also the future,” Harris said. “I know the strength and the vibrancy of the Latino community. This is not a new focus for me.”

At the same time, Harris’s circle has long been concerned that she not be seen as a representative of liberal minorities, but as a leader for all Americans. Conversely, her service under an older White centrist means she is not always embraced by those communities.

“The vice presidency is one of the best presidential springboards, but, like everything, it’s not a perfect springboard,” said Joel Goldstein, a scholar of the vice presidency at St. Louis University. “Vice presidents get a lot of benefit from being vice president. But one of the challenges is that they inherit the baggage of the administration they serve with.”

Goldstein said Harris’s goal is to leverage her differences from Biden to the administration’s benefit.

“Presidents and vice presidents are never total carbon copies of each other,” Goldstein said. “Part of her pitch, number one, is to say ‘This is what we’ve done,’ but the second is to give the perception that she’s a player, someone who can appeal to groups that may be uncomfortable” with Biden.

The president successfully courted minority voters for much of his five decades in politics. He served as vice president to the first Black president, Barack Obama, and chose a woman of Black and Asian descent to serve as vice president. In 2020, he relied heavily on Black voters in South Carolina and elsewhere to catapult him to the Democratic nomination.

In that race, Biden campaigned amid nationwide demonstrations triggered by the killing of George Floyd, as millions called for reforms in education, policing and criminal justice. He has highlighted racial equity throughout his presidency, from visiting the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorating a racist massacre in Tulsa to nominating the first Black female Supreme Court justice.

Last week, Biden made stops in Nevada and Arizona, visiting a Mexican restaurant in Phoenix to launch an outreach program for Latino voters. In an interview with Univision Radio, he pitched himself as the candidate who understands Latino values. His allies often stress that Trump has spoken in derisive terms about Black Americans, Latino immigrants, Muslims and other minorities.

But some civil rights activists say Biden has failed to live up to his promises. He could not overcome opposition from Republicans, for example, to push through bills revamping the criminal justice system and protecting voting rights. Biden did sign an executive order in 2022 aimed at preventing and punishing police misconduct.

For Harris, the challenge is that regardless of her personal history, she is an extension of Biden’s White House. Beyond their concerns on policing and voting rights, some Black activists say the administration’s stance on the war in Gaza shows a troubling lack of concern for members of an oppressed minority, even if they are not Americans.

“It just feels like to me what Kamala Harris is lacking is any authenticity or concern for our people,” said Bernice Lauredan, a Tampa-based activist. While Harris recently called for a cease-fire in Gaza, she added, “it just felt so calculated after months of Black people asking, ‘Please support Palestine.’”

Still, Lauredan said that “having a Black woman being vice president is important.” And despite her qualms, she said she will vote for Biden because “people forget how bad things were under Trump. It was so chaotic.”

Biden’s close embrace of Israel during its invasion of Gaza has clearly prompted widespread dissatisfaction among young voters as well as people of color. His advantage over Trump among voters ages 18-29 has shrunk dramatically, from 24 points in 2020 to 12 today, according to the New York Times-Siena poll.

Harris, like Biden and other Democrats, now regularly faces pro-Palestinian protesters at her events. During a stop in Phoenix, her motorcade passed dozens of demonstrators yelling “Genocide Joe” and “Butcher Biden,” and she was later interrupted by a protester during remarks on reproductive rights.

Before the event in North Las Vegas, an aide handed Harris a notecard with bullet points on what to say if she encountered Israel-Gaza war protesters. She looked it over before taking the stage, where she was in fact interrupted by a demonstrator.

“Okay, everyone has a chance to speak,” Harris said as the protester was swiftly removed. “Right now, I’m speaking.”

But Gaza is far from the only issue that is causing discomfort with Biden among minority groups.

In his 2020 campaign, Biden touted plans to create a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. But now, faced with unprecedented — and politically perilous — migrant crossings at the southern border, Biden has focused instead on trying to get Congress to pass a border security bill that would include the strictest enforcement measures in decades.

In her speech here, Harris reiterated that she and Biden are “fighting to secure a pathway for citizenship including for our Dreamers and their families,” a reference to migrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children.

Harris’s message elicited mixed feelings for Astrid Silva, a longtime immigrant rights activist.

“A lot of us are frustrated,” said Silva, 35. “A lot of things are still up in the air. A lot of things haven’t been done on immigration. That’s tough for me.”

Yet both Silva and Avila expressed delight, and hope, at being in the presence of the first woman of color to serve as vice president. Avila, who emigrated from Chile at age 27, said that despite her disappointment in Biden’s immigration record, she saw Harris’s mention of the issue in her speech as evidence that she cares about helping immigrants.

Biden and Harris deserve more time to address the issue, Avila said: “I see it like a reminder that we need to give them four more years.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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