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VP Harris takes to the road to convince voters to give Biden another term

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Back here in the U.S., Vice President Kamala Harris is on the move. She is touring the country, trying to make the case that voters ought to give President Biden another term in the White House. Last week, she was in Minnesota touring a clinic that provides abortions, a first, the White House believes, for any president or vice president. This week, Harris is due to visit the site of the Parkland school shooting in Florida. Where she goes, who she meets and what she says is all being done with a mission, as NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Vice President Harris has three main jobs this campaign season - no. 1, travel the country for Biden.

JIM MESSINA: The vice president serves as the president's chief surrogate, especially in the battleground states.

KHALID: Jim Messina ran Barack Obama's 2012 reelection bid.

MESSINA: What I learned when I ran President Obama's campaign is that, you know, the president has a day job. Crisis has come up and they just cannot campaign as much as their opponent.

KHALID: So in steps the VP. That takes us to her second job, energize the base. Take a listen to Sheila Nix. She's Harris' chief of staff when it comes to the campaign.

SHEILA NIX: She's really been mobilizing a lot of the voters that we need, you know, especially in the Biden-Harris coalition, like young people, women, voters of color.

KHALID: And the third thing she's got to do is prove she is competent enough to become president one day. More on that later. But first, I want to dive deep into this issue of motivating key parts of the Democratic base because it really is the core of what she's doing. Harris talks a lot about the fight to protect fundamental freedoms, whether she's talking about abortion, guns, book bans or voting rights.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: In this moment, we are witnessing a full-on attack on hard-fought, hard-won freedoms.

KHALID: That was at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. And here she is in Phoenix the day after the State of the Union.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: These extremists, they're trying to take women back to the 1800s. But we're not going to let them.

KHALID: Harris is the administration's main spokesperson on abortion. She's held more than 80 events on reproductive rights since Roe v. Wade was overturned. Mini Timmaraju, president of the group Reproductive Freedom For All, says Harris is seen to have a level of credibility on the issue.

MINI TIMMARAJU: She's been a champion of these issues for a very long time. And, look, I mean, she's much more authentic and much more persuasive on this issue than anyone else in the administration.

KHALID: Biden is a practicing Catholic, and he's had his own reservations about discussing abortion over the years. He rarely uses the word. This idea that Harris has a unique demographic appeal is something I hear again and again from people close to her. It's hard to tell that from the polls. Both Harris and Biden have very low approval ratings. I asked Terrance Woodbury about this. He's the founder of HIT Strategies and he polls voters of color.

TERRANCE WOODBURY: 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.

KHALID: But, he says, part of Harris' job this campaign season is to engage the activists, the boots on the ground.

WOODBURY: We see this in polling, too, is when we look at the most likely voters, the super voters, she is overwhelmingly popular there.

KHALID: Speaking to that crowd, though, has become more complicated in recent months with the war in Gaza. Take a listen to a stop Harris made in California this past January. She was trying to call out Republicans over abortion laws.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: You know, I will tell you...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: The Biden administration needs to demand a cease-fire now. Cease-fire now.

KHALID: The calls for a cease-fire went on for about 30 seconds.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: Everyone has a right to have their voice heard.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Cease-fire now...

(CHEERING)

HARRIS: Everyone has a right to have their voice heard.

(CHEERING)

HARRIS: And I will say, we all want this conflict to end as soon as possible.

(CHEERING)

KHALID: One big challenge for Harris is how she navigates these polarizing issues. And it matters more than normal because she's running alongside an 81-year-old, the oldest president in American history. If something happens to him, she'd take his place. And she gets this question a lot. Here she is on NBC News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS")

HARRIS: Listen, as it relates to me, I'm ready if necessary. But it's not going to be necessary.

KHALID: The thing is, Harris has to convince people she's ready without having the power to set the policy she's talking about. Devin O'Malley was press secretary to the former vice president, Mike Pence.

DEVIN O'MALLEY: 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.

KHALID: Republicans like O'Malley say Harris gets tripped up in her words, making it hard for her to persuade people she could step into the top job. So part of the Democrats' reelection bid will require them to tackle this head on because the flip side of the Joe Biden age question is the Kamala Harris competency question. Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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