Sen. Kamala D. Harris hit the panic button Thursday on her free-falling campaign, announcing an Iowa-or-bust strategy that she hopes will put her on an Obama-like glide to the nomination.
She also raised the stakes by vowing to quit the race if she can’t muster a win, place or show in the Hawkeye State’s leadoff caucuses Feb. 3.
“We want to make sure that we have a strong top-three finish,” said Harris campaign manager Juan Rodriguez. “I think that will kind of continue to give us a slingshot to go into that early primary state calendar and then make sure that we’re also competitive heading into Super Tuesday.”
The Harris campaign was front-loaded as the race appeared to narrow to a two-way contest between former Vice President Joseph R. Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, who has been vying for a spot among the top three candidates, shook up his campaign leadership in New Hampshire this week and recently fired his Iowa campaign manager.
Ms. Harris‘ poll numbers tanked after she repeatedly squandered breakthrough opportunities and let confusion about her ideological moorings linger. Some of the early excitement about her candidacy has now cooled.
The Harris campaign released a memo describing how she will “double down on Iowa.”
She will campaign in Iowa each week in October and add more than 60 organizers and open 10 more offices in the state. The effort builds on her push in Iowa this summer, when she embarked on a five-day bus tour and opened seven offices, including a headquarters in Des Moines.
It is an open acknowledgment that Ms. Harris, who is seeking to become the nation’s first female black president, is trying to recapture some of her early mojo.
Iowa historically has acted as a punji pit or a springboard for presidential hopefuls.
In 2016, Donald Trump erased any doubts about whether he was a serious candidate with a second-place caucus finish.
Ms. Harris is more apt to take inspiration from another first-term senator: Barack Obama, who in 2008 shocked the political world when he rolled to victory in Iowa.
Mr. Obama was running stronger than Ms. Harris at this point in the 2008 cycle, scoring over 20% in pre-caucus polls. When Mr. Biden ran for president in 2008, he was on a more Harris-like trajectory, polling around 4% in September before the caucuses.
Ms. Harris had planned to hang in the race through Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada in hopes of a good finish in South Carolina that would propel her into the Super Tuesday primaries March 3 that include her home state of California.
The campaign now doubts she can slow-roll her run to South Carolina’s Feb. 29 primary.
Ms. Harris has been unable to sustain momentum in the race. She has slid back in the polls each time she has appeared to gain traction, such as after the June debate in Miami where she confronted Mr. Biden for opposing busing to desegregate public schools in the 1970s.
She has fallen into the second tier of candidates far behind the front-runners: Mr. Biden, Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders.
Ms. Harris‘ support dropped to 6% for a fifth-place finish in an Iowa poll by CBS News. Her support was at 16% in the same poll in July.
She settled into a distant fifth place behind Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls.
Bret Nilles, chairman of the Linn County Democrats in Iowa, said Ms. Harris made a good first impression on voters but has struggled to sustain momentum.
“She really hasn’t been around and as visible in eastern Iowa,” said Mr. Nilles, noting that she is scheduled to return Friday.
Touting her prosecutorial chops on the campaign trail, Ms. Harris says she is ready to prosecute the case against Mr. Trump and can appeal to the party’s centrist and liberal voters.
That approach, however, has made it difficult for her to carve out a core constituency and appears to have caught her in a tangle of several political worlds.
“Voters don’t know if she is in the mainstream lane or the progressive lane,” said Jeff Link, an Iowa-based Democratic Party strategist.
“Warren and Sanders are comfortable in the progressive lane, while Biden is comfortable in the mainstream lane with the likes of Bullock and Buttigieg,” he said. “Harris is kind of jumping between the two.”
Ms. Harris has at times been self-destructive, such as her rush to embrace left-wing aspirations — including abolishing private health insurance as part of a single-payer system — only to backtrack later.
Mr. Nilles said caucusgoers are taking note.
“Voters are willing to give these candidates the benefit of the doubt early on, but I think it is kind of the same thing that is impacting Vice President Biden,” Mr. Nilles said. “You start seeing a trend of people putting stuff out there and then trying to dial it back, and people are looking for a candidate who will stick with their message and carry it forward.
“With Sen. Harris, that could be a problem.”
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