By Jarrett Renshaw
BOSTON (Reuters) – Vice President Kamala Harris has shown a punchy side during a tour of nearly a dozen U.S. states in recent weeks, attacking Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for backing “revisionist history” about slavery, telling Iowa healthcare workers to rebel against the state’s new restrictive abortion laws and rallying Latinos in Chicago to fight “extremist” Republicans.
On Saturday, Harris, the first woman and first woman of color to serve as vice president, opened the NAACP’s annual conference in Boston, a key political event for Black Americans that will help define the issues Democrats focus on in the 2024 election.
““We are in a moment where there is a full-on attempt to attack hard-fought and hard-won rights and freedoms and liberty. And what I know about the leaders here is that the members of NAACP are up to the challenge to fight,” Harris, a lifetime member of the civil rights organization, told several thousand people inside the city’s convention center.
The high-profile appearances are part of an expanded role for U.S. President Joe Biden’s much-scrutinized governing partner ahead of the election, senior Democrats say. She’ll engage in many more campaign-style events in months to come, designed to reacquaint Harris with supporters, burnish her image with independents and reach out to Democrats’ who haven’t been hearing the Biden administration’s message.
It’s a move that couldn’t happen too soon, some influential Democrats say.
“We have constantly said to the White House that they need to send her out more because we need the base – that is Black voters and others – to understand what you are doing,” Reverend Al Sharpton, a veteran civil rights activist and head of the National Action Network, told Reuters.
Biden credits Black voters for his 2020 victory, with exit polls showing he carried 87% of the vote. But recent polls and turnout in the 2022 midterms reveal erosion in enthusiasm among the bloc that needs to be shored up before next November.
Harris also made a surprise visit to a congressional black caucus event at Roxbury Community College, where she reminded the crowd of the role Black voters played in capturing the White House for Biden. She said as a result the administration capped insulin prices, increased removal of lead pipes and secured broadband for under served communities.
“Let’s start registering folks now to vote,” she said. “Remind your friends and your neighbors to do that.”
The White House is also hoping to improve Harris’ public image and historically low approval ratings. A recent NBC News poll showed 49% of registered voters hold a negative view of Harris, compared to 32% with a positive view, a net-negative rating of 17 that is the lowest for a vice president in the history of its poll.
While it’s too early to say whether her polls are improving, Harris’s remarks are drawing new Republican fire, and highlighting divisions in the opposition.
DeSantis on Friday accused U.S. Senator Tim Scott, the most high-profile Black candidate in the 2024 Republican presidential race, of accepting Harris’s “lie” about Florida’s new slavery curriculum requirements. His campaign accused another Black Republican who criticized the changes, which include teaching that slavery had possible benefits to the enslaved, of being a Harris supporter.
Voters wary of the president’s advanced age of 80 are expected to take a much harder look at the vice president. Some Republicans are already suggesting Harris could run the country if Biden wins in 2024.
“We are running against Kamala Harris. Make no bones about it…[it’s] Kamala Harris that’s going to end up being president of the United States if Joe Biden wins this election,” Republican candidate Nikki Haley told Fox News in June.
Harris, who was more popular than Biden with women, young voters and even some Republicans when he picked her as his vice presidential running mate, has seen her ratings sag in office under a firehose of criticism from conservative media outlets and a portfolio that included the intractable U.S. issue of immigration.
Some Democrats say she hasn’t stepping up forcefully enough, or taken burdens off the President’s shoulders. Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs Wade last year, though Harris has become increasingly vocal.
“She does better on subject matters and audiences she is comfortable with. Given the portfolio she was handed early on – and the challenges it represented – it’s simple campaign management to get her out front of friendly audiences where she can get some of her mojo back,” said an adviser at the Democratic National Committee.
(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Heather Timmons and Alistair Bell)