Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) speaks at a town hall for the American Federation of Teachers in Detroit May 6. (Paul Sancya/AP)
Opinion writer

This month, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) (May 28, on MSNBC) and Beto O’Rourke (May 21, on CNN) will participate in town halls. They come at a critical time for both.

The last time Harris did one of these, she confused a whole lot of people as to her position on Medicare-for-all. She seemed to agree that private insurance would be outlawed, but in an interview on CNN last weekend, she suggested there might still be a place for private insurance. After a strong kickoff, she’s settled into single digits in most polling.

O’Rourke has yet to do a cable TV network town hall, so this will be a first for him in prime time. He has embarked on a reset, with more national TV interviews and more substance. Like Harris, he’s also fallen well back in the pack. This will be an opportunity to reintroduce himself to voters who have a fuzzy idea of who he is, introduce himself to voters who haven’t been paying much attention, and begin to carve out a distinct identity in a crowded race.

Harris — who’s trying a reset of her own to stress her prosecutorial experience and go after President Trump more directly — is at risk of veering too far to the left, and thereby making her an inviting target for Republicans. Her language has been less than clear to date on how closely her views track self-described socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), but, at a minimum, she’ll need to answer these kind of questions:

  • What exactly do you mean by Medicare-for-all? If I like my employer-provided plan, can I keep it?
  • When you say you support the Green New Deal, do you approve of the “idea” of a GND or do you endorse all the particulars? Do you have your own plan?
  • If elected, you likely won’t have a filibuster-proof Senate majority. If the Senate won’t abandon it, how do you plan to get GOP support for measures Republicans say they oppose?
  • If you could go back, is there anything you would have done differently as California’s attorney general or San Francisco’s city attorney?
  • Does a woman nominee increase the chances that Trump will win reelection?

Harris has an advantage on foreign policy over many of the contenders because she sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee. She should be expected to do more than one-liners (“I won’t conduct foreign policy by tweet”) and banalities (“We should work with our allies on X”). She’d do herself some good, and stand out from the crowd, in articulating even one coherent, informed foreign policy idea. She might be one of the few able to do it.

As for O’Rourke, style counts as much as substance. He will need to convey calm, seriousness and, yes, gravitas to get voters to consider him “presidential.” Projecting that sort of solidity means voice, mannerisms and content have to be in sync — all conveying competence and maturity. He cannot get by on “I want to bring people together.”

Fortunately, when he has spoken about policy, he’s not run to the far left. Now he needs to flesh out his ideas:

  • How will your health-care plan bring down drug and other treatment costs?
  • Do you think we need some barriers at the border? What will you do to alleviate the current asylum overload?
  • Your green deal costs an estimated $5 trillion. Where does the money come from?

In short, both candidates have fallen back in the pack, but a town hall or a debate performance or two can raise their profile and give voters new reasons to consider them (or, in Iowa, to “realign” in their column if their first choice doesn’t meet the 15 percent threshold).

One more point is worth underscoring: At town halls these candidates have the luxury of giving a three- or four-minute answer (that’s a lot in TV time), but at the debate they might get a total of seven or eight minutes during the entire time period. They both need to be more concise.

Let’s see if either — or both — has done the homework to impress viewers. If they don’t make a splash at town halls or at 2019 debates, they may find themselves knocked out of the race — perhaps even by Feb. 12, 2020 (the day after the New Hampshire primary).

Read more:

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