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Stepping into critical campaign role, VP Harris reaches voters of color and women

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Vice President Kamala Harris has had a bumpy road in office, often mocked by Republicans and even criticized by some Democrats who worry she has not stepped up to the job and could be a political liability. But as the 2024 campaign gets underway, the vice president is taking on a critical role. She's been on the road all summer, selling the Democrat's message to crowds full of women and Black and brown voters. NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: The vice president was flying to Indiana one day in late July to deliver remarks at a Black sorority convention. And en route, she heard about these new rules in Florida for how Black history ought to be taught. Harris was outraged. Here's her senior adviser, Stephanie Young.

STEPHANIE YOUNG: She pulled us all together. We were on a plane going another place. And she's like, I think we got to go down there.

KHALID: Young recounted the moment to me at a cafe near the White House.

YOUNG: We scrambled. Within 24 hours, we were there. It was very important for her to stand up in that moment.

KHALID: The very next day, Harris was in Jacksonville, Fla., condemning the new standards, which she characterized this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: They want to replace history with lies, middle school students in Florida to be told that enslaved people benefited from slavery.

KHALID: Harris was now the Democrats' rapid response captain. The next week, as Republican presidential hopefuls descended on Des Moines, Harris was in Iowa, too, blasting the state's new abortion ban and trying to rally the troops.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: Register to vote, and then vote.

KHALID: The vice president's central message is that freedom is under attack by extremist leaders. Freedom could mean reproductive rights, book bans, voting rights or even gun safety. She ties it all together, and she's often taking that message to key constituencies in the Democratic Party, delivering speeches at a large Latino conference one week and at a women's convention of the AME Church the next week. Here's Harris adviser Stephanie Young again.

YOUNG: At the end of the day, she does have the unique ability to reach women, of course, and people of color.

KHALID: Groups that Democrats need to win. In her speeches, Harris generally touts the accomplishments of the administration - things like capping the cost of insulin at $35 a month. And then she talks about the Democratic agenda to fight for freedoms. It's not a message that's really all that different from Biden. But Terrance Woodbury told me Harris still has a distinct role in this 2024 campaign. Woodbury is a Democratic pollster.

TERRANCE WOODBURY: It's more about who and what she represents than what she can say and what she can do. The message isn't that different, but I do think that there's an audience that's going to hear it better from her than they will from him.

KHALID: So I flew out to the annual NAACP convention where Harris was speaking to ask people for myself. And that's where I met Lajuana Bivens from Stockton, Calif.

LAJUANA BIVENS: When she responded to the governor of Florida and took a position of, we will not tolerate this type of taking America back to the Dark Ages, it made me so proud.

KHALID: Yet others feel like Harris has not used her platform effectively enough. Connie Burton, Ashley Foxworth and Latrice Rowell are all from the Tampa, Fla., area. They say it feels like the VP needs to take on more of a leadership role. They specifically spoke about the education fights in their home state of Florida.

CONNIE BURTON: We want more of an action plan.

ASHLEY FOXWORTH: Yeah.

BURTON: We don't want a reactionary response just because the governor is on the ledge. We want her...

FOXWORTH: (Inaudible).

BURTON: Exactly.

FOXWORTH: Yep.

LATRICE ROWELL: Proactivity is what she needs to focus on, not being reactive, waiting on something to happen.

KHALID: A number of people here at the convention, like Ella Coffee, say they do want to hear from Harris. In fact, they want to hear from her more because they think she has a unique story.

ELLA COFFEE: She does have a message, but she has got to tell that message. She's got to tell it. So I'm happy that she's our vice president. But I am discouraged about some things over the last four years. I don't see her out there enough.

KHALID: Harris is hoping to be out there more. Her staff says she intends to keep traveling this fall. Her next stop - a gun safety conference in Chicago tomorrow. 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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