Four months after Tulsi Gabbard blasted Sen. Kamala Harris in a high-profile debate confrontation, Harris got her payback Wednesday night with a broadside against the controversial Hawaii congresswoman.
But Harris avoided a direct confrontation with South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, only obliquely criticizing him as she called on candidates not to take black voters for granted.
In a presidential debate marked by a series of skirmishes between the candidates, Harris’s toughest attack came after Gabbard declared that the Democratic Party is “not the party that is of, by, and for the people,” and had been taken hostage by the “foreign policy establishment in Washington” and “greedy corporate interests.”
A moderator asked Harris if she wanted to respond.
“Oh, sure,” the senator said to laughs. “I think that it’s unfortunate that we have someone on this stage that is attempting to be the Democratic nominee for President of the United States, who during the Obama administration spent four years full time on Fox News criticizing President Obama.”
She noted that Gabbard was briefly in the running for a Trump cabinet post, saying that “when Donald Trump was elected, not even sworn in, she buddied up to Steve Bannon to get a meeting with Donald Trump in the Trump Tower.”
And Harris blasted Gabbard over her decision to meeting with Syrian autocrat Bashar al-Assad, saying she “fails to call a war criminal by what he is as a war criminal, and then spends full time during the course of this campaign, again, criticizing the Democratic Party.”
Gabbard responded that Harris’ assertions were “ridiculous.”
“What Senator Harris is doing is unfortunately continuing to traffic in lies and smears and innuendos because she cannot challenge the substance of the argument that I’m making,” Gabbard said. Harris’ attack “only makes me guess that she will as president continue the status quo, continue the Bush-Clinton–Trump foreign policy of regime change wars, which is deeply destructive,” she added.
The exchange was the latest chapter in the contentious relationship between the two congresswomen. During the second debate in July, Gabbard laid out a lacerating attack on Harris’ criminal justice record, including her history of prosecuting marijuana cases and opposition as California attorney general to overturning some death row convictions. While not all of Gabbard’s claims stood up to scrutiny, Harris struggled to defend herself onstage.
While it’s unclear how impactful that exchange was, it coincided with the start of Harris’ precipitous fall in the polls over the last few months.
In a TV interview an hour after the debate, Harris described herself as a “top-tier candidate,” saying she wasn’t surprised to get attacked. But since then, Harris has fallen while Gabbard has risen in several early states. The Hawaii congresswoman now leads Harris in some polls of New Hampshire and other states.
Wednesday’s debate comes as the pressure on Harris is building. She’s redeployed staff from other states to Iowa in a Hail Mary bet on the Hawkeye State, and her campaign has faced reports about internal turmoil among her top leaders.
The Gabbard-Harris faceoff — which lit up social media among partisans on both sides — showed how Harris scores some of her best moments on offense. Notably, her broadside against Joe Biden in the first debate gave her a big — but temporary — jump in the polls. And several of her Senate hearings grilling Trump administration officials have gone viral.
But in another moment later in the debate, Harris shied away from a showdown with Buttigieg, whose improbable rise is a far bigger danger to her struggling candidacy than Gabbard. The mayor has soared in Iowa and other states and is vying with Harris for a similar center-left ideological coalition of voters.
Earlier this week, Harris blasted Buttigieg over his lack of support from black voters and a misstep by his campaign using a stock photo of a woman from Kenya to accompany his plan to support African-American communities.
On Wednesday night, however, Harris was more circumspect, only obliquely criticizing the Indiana mayor.
“For too long, I think candidates have taken for granted constituencies that have been the backbone of the Democratic party and overlooked those constituencies,” she said. “They show up when it’s close to election time, they show up in a black church and want to get the vote… but they haven’t been there before.”
Buttigieg responded that he “completely” agreed with Harris about the importance of black voters and welcomed the “challenge” of connecting with them.
In another notable moment, former Vice President Joe Biden claimed that he’d been endorsed by the “the only African American woman ever to be elected to the Senate” — referring to Carol Moseley Braun, the first black woman elected to the body.
“The other one is here,” Harris interjected, laughing and shrugging, as the audience cheered.
— Peter Stevenson (@PeterWStevenson) November 21, 2019
Harris focused most of her fire Wednesday night on Trump. She opened her time at the debate by declaring “we have a criminal living in the White House,” relating the revelations in this week’s House impeachment hearings to her argument that as a former prosecutor, she’s the best candidate to hold the president accountable.
“We need the same set of rules for everybody,” she said, vowing to “bring justice back to America for all people, and not just for some.”
And Harris said he got “punked” by North Korea, blasting the president for caving to dictator Kim Jong-Un without getting real concessions from Pyongyang.