MOUNT PLEASANT, Iowa — Known as a steely California prosecutor, Kamala Harris showed her softer side as she crisscrossed Iowa over the past week — visiting a sustainable farm in Timberland boots and raving about the garlic and heirloom tomatoes and calling out Bingo numbers for senior citizens.
On a five-day, 17-stop bus tour, she sought to claim the middle ground in the sprawling Democratic primary and regain the momentum that briefly propelled her campaign into the top tier earlier this summer.
Harris rode on a bus plastered with her name and campaign logo on the outside for a trip that signaled she’s now focused on Iowa, site of the first presidential contest on Feb. 3, where Joe Biden still holds a commanding lead.
Harris, who became known for her finger-jabbing questioning of Supreme Court nominees from her perch on the Judiciary Committee, ate a pork chop on a stick at the Iowa State Fair. She prayed with parishioners at Corinthian Baptist Church in Des Moines.
And she seemed to appreciate the competitive spirit of the Bingo players in Muscatine.
“Just like you intend to win Bingo, I intend to win this election,” Harris told an elderly woman after the first round.
But Harris has serious ground to make up to Iowa. Over the past five days, she tried to home in on what separates her from her biggest rivals: Biden and Elizabeth Warren. The latest statewide poll showed her in third place in Iowa with 11%, behind Biden with 28% and Warren with 19%.
Biden and Warren represent the two opposing ideological flanks of the party. So Harris has tried to position herself between the two.
“I mean, you know, where would you put a progressive prosecutor in that spectrum?” Harris told Bloomberg News on Sunday. “It’s literally, it’s not the way that I think about things. I approached priorities around what do we need to do to fix something. What do we need to do to get something done? What do we need to do to be relevant in the lives of people? That’s my motivation. It’s not, do I need to satisfy some orthodoxy about a certain ideological position?”
Harris centered the bus tour theme on her pragmatic approach to policy, framing the five-day swing around her “3AM Agenda,” what she says are issues that wake people up before dawn. Iowans who had been waiting to see her in person said her pragmatism, even as she showed more of her personality, was a draw.
“In real time when she is revealing her humanity and her optimism and her soul, she is much more aspirational,” said Sandra Johnson, 66, of Washington, Iowa. “I like her toughness, but I like her compassion much better.”
In more than two dozen conversations with voters across the state, Harris was often among voters’ top choices, but most said they haven’t locked in their support yet.
“I would really like to see a woman as POTUS,” said Heather Youngquist, 36, of Coralville, using the acronym for president of the United States. “She seems to exhibit all the qualities of a president.”
Harris also scored two influential endorsements from Iowans during her Iowa swing. Sue and Bob Dvorsky, an influential political couple, endorsed Harris on Saturday after they were courted by almost every presidential candidate because of their deep knowledge of the state’s politics and caucus system. Sue Dvorsky was chairwoman of the state Democratic Party from 2010 to 2012, and Bob Dvorsky was a longtime Iowa state senator.
Harris also won the endorsement of the Asian and Latino Coalition in Iowa.
“The team that they’ve got on the ground is spectacular,” Sue Dvorsky said as she escorted Harris around the state fair. “She’s spectacular. The pieces are in place and people just get the work done.”
But it’s Harris’ lack of ideology that has drawn criticism from both the moderate and progressive wings of the party, particularly for her version of “Medicare for All,” which would preserve a role for private health insurance. Harris, who initially supported Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill that would eliminate private insurance, had given inconsistent answers on her stance on private insurance for months before presenting her own plan.
“I don’t think anybody disputes that Elizabeth Warren is sincere when she says what she says or Bernie Sanders or Biden,” said Kurt Bardella, a former Republican operative turned Democrat. “That authenticity and sincerity is very important, particularly juxtaposed to a president who Democratic voters would say is completely disingenuous and lies all the time. We saw the pitfalls in 2016 of seeing a candidate who was too calculated, and Harris is sort of falling into that trap right now.”
Some voters also echoed that sentiment.
“Go big or go home,” Ann Distelhorst, a Burlington, Iowa resident said after Harris participated in a health care roundtable on Monday. “I don’t think now is the time to be mild.”
Distelhorst, 66, left the Harris event even more firm in her support of Sanders. “It’s time for the country to go in the direction it should have gone 50 years ago in terms of economic justice and social justice,” she said.
However, with two dozen Democratic candidates, most Iowans are waiting for the field to shrink before settling on a candidate.
“Everything’s fluid,” said Jeff Fager, the chairman of the Henry County Democratic Party. “I know of no one who’s made a final decision on who they’re going to caucus for.”