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Opinion Harris’s town hall: The promise and the perils

After a widely praised presidential campaign kick-off rally in Oakland, Calif., on Sunday, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) went to Iowa for a CNN-televised town hall on Monday night. As she had in Oakland, Harris came across as warm, passionate and focused.

Even some Republicans recognized her strengths:

Her answers on “dreamers" (“I stand with you. We should not be trading on your life”), guns (before voting on gun laws, "somebody should require all those members of Congress to look at the autopsy photos of those babies” killed at Sandy Hook), health care (get rid of private insurance) and the Green New Deal (for it) were passionate and sure to please the progressive base. She has a knack for cutting President Trump down to size without stooping to his level. “It’s very important that anyone who presents themselves as a leader, and wants to be a leader, will speak like a leader, and that means speaking with integrity — speaking the truth,” Harris said when asked about how she’d debate Trump. “And speaking in a way that expresses and indicates some level of interest and concern in people other than one’s self.”

She’s plainly running against Trump’s nativism, bigotry and misogyny, yet rather than fight on his terms, she comes back to a unifying message. “The vast majority of us have so much more in common than what separates us, and we need leadership in this country that recognizes that,” she declared

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She has got the small things right — repeating the questioner’s name, making eye contact, speaking to the questioner and throwing in plenty of personal references to her own formative experiences. (“My mother used to have a saying, and she would say to me: ‘Kamala, you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last.’”)

On her record on criminal-justice reform, she has an effective comeback:

Her opponents will have to do more than launch broad-brush attacks to throw her off balance.

All of that said, you could see where the trouble spots will be, especially in a general election, should she be the nominee. Her emphatic answer on Medicare-for-all will be unnerving even to some Democrats. “Let’s eliminate all of that. Let’s move on," she said when asked about people keeping their private insurance.

Indeed by Tuesday morning Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) was already sounding a cautionary note:

Klobuchar’s position is more practical and politically feasible, but if she (or other moderates run) she will have to make “radical moderation” a virtue.

Getting push too far to the left is not a problem unique to Harris. All the Democratic candidates face the same challenge, namely how to capture the enthusiasm of their progressive base without setting themselves up in the general election to be painted as wide-eyed socialists. One hopes in the back of their minds (or their campaign teammates' minds), whenever they set out an uncompromisingly progressive position, there is a voice whispering, “How is this going to sound to independents in Wisconsin or lapsed Republicans in Arizona?”) Harris and others might consider talking in “goals” — “I think we should get to a system of Medicare-for-all” — that leaves room for discussion on how we transition to nirvana, how we pay for it and how we develop political consensus.

Nevertheless, such concerns at this stage in the campaign (when virtually no one other than media and political junkies is paying attention) are not what matter (to the extent anything 13 months before the Iowa caucuses matter). If candidates aim to make an impression, set a tone and help voters differentiate themselves from the others in a fleet of candidates, Harris is doing as well or better than anyone.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Kamala Harris starts strong, and Howard Schultz stirs a backlash

Jonathan Capehart: When you read Kamala Harris’s book, you’ll come away with one thought

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Ronald A. Klain: A crowded road to 2020 will yield the best Democrat