ST. GEORGE, S.C. — Before Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) stepped out of her white minivan, no presidential candidate had ever visited St. George, at least as far as any local officials could remember. But the shadow of the ever-growing Democratic field fell on Harris even here, when a young voter named Essence Williams asked her about fellow Democratic candidate Andrew Yang’s proposal to give $1,000 of basic income to every American ages 18 to 64.
“Do you think this program is feasible in our economic climate?” Williams asked. “And is it possible to increase the standard of living for low-income families?”
“I haven’t analyzed that policy,” Harris said, pivoting instead to discussions of how she hopes to reduce student loan debt and “uplift” young people.
After Harris finished, Williams said she “absolutely” still had questions about where Harris stood, even as she was grateful for the senator’s candor.
“It’s all about trust,” she said. “I’d rather she be honest with me [like that] and tell me she hasn’t looked into it.”
In the first weeks of Harris’s campaign, the 54-year-old has fielded criticism for equivocal and imprecise answers to questions about her stances on specific policies and her record as a prosecutor.
The language contrasts with the message Harris hammers to receptive crowds at every stop: defining herself as the candidate speaking truth and confronting the uncomfortable conversations the country needs to have. But there is little indication that the approach has cut into her popularity, and she is not shying away from further controversy.
In an interview with MSNBC on Thursday, Harris said it was “outrageous” that Vice President Pence will not have one-on-one meetings with women — a critique that exaggerated a long-ago Pence comment that he does not dine one-on-one with a woman other than his wife.
“I think that’s ridiculous,” Harris said. “The idea that you would deny a professional woman the opportunity to have a meeting with the vice president of the United States is outrageous.”
Pence’s press secretary, Alyssa Farah, responded to Harris’s comments with a tweet in which she asked the senator why she was repeating a false claim.
“He’s elevated women to positions of leadership throughout his career & relies on their advice & counsel,” Farah wrote. “Get your facts straight.”
Seema Verma, an administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, chimed in, too, calling Harris’s assertions “blatantly false.”
An earlier example came in an on-camera interview with CNN’s John King in late February, when the anchor asked Harris: Why did voters who twice chose Barack Obama flip to President Trump?
“I’ll leave that to the pundits, but I’ll tell you that — ” Harris said before King interrupted.
“If I’m a Democratic voter and I want Trump gone,” King said, “I want a better answer than that.”
Yet Harris so far has consistently drawn bigger crowds than most of the other candidates, except Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Her campaign reported raising $1.5 million from 38,000 individual donors in its first 24 hours, trailing only Sanders ($5.9 million in the first 24 hours) among candidates who made their fundraising numbers public.
Perhaps most tellingly, Trump’s political advisers see Harris as an especially potent threat, although they acknowledge that the nomination fight is in the early stages and the field is fluid. They think Harris has star power and has demonstrated an ability to draw and excite crowds — factors that Trump thinks helped propel him into the presidency.
Ironically, perhaps the most damaging public stumble Harris has suffered since her announcement occurred when she was blunt and definitive — about the question of whether private health insurance would disappear under the Medicare-for-all plan she supports.
At a CNN Town Hall in January, she said she favored “doing away with” private health insurance.
The Medicare-for-all bill she has endorsed calls for four years of transition to a single-payer system with an eventual, not immediate, disposal of all private insurance. A campaign representative later said Harris could support a system that preserved private health insurance, and has co-sponsored bills that would create a public health insurance option to compete with private options, not replace them.
Her answer forced other Democratic candidates to clarify their positions on private insurance as they advocate for a stronger public insurance option. None had previously gone quite so far in their endorsement of the plan.
Harris’s Medicare-for-all stance is lingering in voter minds — in large part, say many, including 25-year-old South Carolinian Steven Wright, because “for me, it seems almost disrespectful, like ‘I know what’s best for you.’ ”
“I love my plan. I love being able to pay for my plan,” said Wright, who attended the St. George event. “I think giving government full control over the health-care system is very dangerous.”
On other issues, voters wave away Harris’s occasional stumbles. After she described an alleged attack on actor Jussie Smollett as a “modern-day lynching” — Smollett has since pleaded not guilty to charges of lying to police — the statement drew hours of cable news coverage and D.C. discussion. Not a single voter asked about it as she campaigned.
Voters consistently show more concern about the policies Harris promoted in her earlier roles as San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general. A Las Vegas voter asked her about the policy she instituted in San Francisco that threatened parents of habitually truant students with incarceration — the result of a study Harris conducted that showed the harm missing school at the elementary level can have on a student’s ability to complete high school. She explained that she never incarcerated parents under the policy.
“I didn’t feel like the question was fully answered. But I do understand it wasn’t something she is currently proposing,” said 17-year-old Clare Oldham, a Las Vegas college student who asked the question. “I do feel like when you’re looking at presidential candidates, you do need it to be someone who you know [what] their past proposals and past legislation has been.”
During a live recording last month in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a host of the podcast Political Party Live asked Harris about another policy she supported as district attorney. The policy empowered city law enforcement to report undocumented juveniles to federal immigration officials even if they had not been convicted of a crime. That marked a departure from the city’s previous policy that allowed for reporting of undocumented adults who had been arrested for crimes but not convicted.
“[Reporting juveniles] ended up being an unintended consequence of the policy and I did not support that consequence of that policy,” Harris said. “And that policy I believe has since changed because it was not the intended purpose of that policy.”
That answer misrepresented the policy, which was enacted specifically to bring undocumented juveniles with criminal records to the attention of immigration enforcement — a response, in part, to a 2008 triple homicide committed by an undocumented immigrant who had been arrested for violent crimes as a teenager but not reported to immigration authorities. Undocumented youths who had not been convicted of crimes did get deported because of the policy.
Charlamagne tha God, host of the “Breakfast Club” syndicated radio show on which Harris spoke recently, said he has no doubt that Harris’s record as a prosecutor is “affecting her in a negative way” with African American voters.
“I personally just want everyone to examine [her] record as a prosecutor, question her record as a prosecutor, point out what you don’t like about her record as a prosecutor, but understand she was a prosecutor. That’s her job,” he said. But, he said, voters also will have to consider programs Harris enacted to help former prisoners get the training and resources they needed. “I think we have to look at it all in its totality,” he said.
Presidential candidates typically adjust their positions and craft more specifics as time goes on, honing them in particular when debates force comparisons between the competitors.
For now, three months before the start of the first primary debates, Harris’s appeal seems to far outweigh any concerns among voters who attend her events. In Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada, attendees desperate for selfies or hugs or to introduce their children to Harris gather around her, draw the attention of television crews and delay her departures.
Even without a firm answer to her questions, Williams spent the moments after Harris’s St. George event elbowing through a crowd, backpedaling to position herself between the senator and the door, and asking the candidate’s communications staff if she had time for just one more.
Like so many who come to hear Harris these days, Williams simply had to have a picture.
Philip Rucker contributed to this report.