Kamala Harris' Balancing Act

Vice President Kamala Harris is currently on the toughest tightrope walk in politics. She’s No. 2 behind the country’s oldest leader whose shaky debate performance on Thursday sent Democrats into a panic about whether he can win the election and serve out a second term. Her name and her political future are bonded to the success of Joe Biden’s bid for a second term.

Harris has tried in recent days to both forcefully defend Biden’s record and his fitness while at the same time acknowledge his obvious failings in his debate against Donald Trump. Ahead of an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper immediately after the debate, Harris informed Biden’s aides she would veer slightly from talking points she had been given, according to a person familiar with her preparations. She acknowledged Biden got off to a “slow start” and then pivoted to warning about the dangers of electing Donald Trump who has said he would be a dictator on “day one”.

Her balancing act was further on display two days later at a Los Angeles fundraiser at the home of movie producer Rob Reiner. Amid a crowd of deep-pocketed liberal donors, many of whom were frustrated with Biden’s struggle to land a compelling message with voters, Harris was blunt. “Our President said it wasn’t his finest hour. We all know it wasn’t,” she said, before launching into a forceful attack on Trump’s threat to democracy and saying that the former President is “still a liar.”

“You see how much hasn’t changed?” Harris continued. “So, let’s deal with what we’ve got, right? Let’s deal with what we’ve got.”

It was a lukewarm endorsement of her running mate, but reflected the reality of the moment, as Democrats scramble to assure party donors and voters that Biden can still beat Trump in November, even after a shaky 90 minutes on the debate stage.

“Harris has been strong post-debate,” says Jim Margolis, a Democratic consultant who has worked with Harris in the past. “She hasn’t tried to bullshit people pretending that what they saw didn’t happen.”

As many in the party question whether Biden should remain their nominee, much of the frantic conversations have circled on whether Harris could do better at the top of the ticket. Biden advisors have told Democratic donors in recent days that he remains the best candidate as he beat Trump once already and Harris would not fare as well. It’s an argument that has struck some party insiders as ungracious to the second name on the ticket, and possibly misleading. “These are Biden’s advisors, and they are doing their job to protect Biden and get him over the finish line,” says a Democratic strategist. “While her name is bandied about in not so flattering ways, her popularity is just about where Biden is,” the strategist says.

There are signs that Harris’ appeal to voters may even be changing in the wake of the debate.

A new CNN/SSRS poll conducted after Thursday’s debate and released Tuesday found that three quarters of voters think the Democratic Party would have a better chance of winning the presidency in November if someone other than Biden was the nominee. The same poll found Harris would do better against Trump than Biden in a hypothetical match up, with 45% of registered voters supporting Harris and 47% supporting Trump, a separation within the poll’s margin of error.

So far, few Democrats have openly called for Biden to leave the race. Former Ohio congressman Tim Ryan became one of the first on Tuesday, penning an essay for Newsweek saying that “it’s time” to make Harris the party’s nominee. “We have to rip the band aid off! Too much is at stake,” Ryan wrote on X. Harris “has significantly grown into her job, she will destroy Trump in debate, highlight choice issue, energize our base, bring back young voters and give us generational change.”

Texas Congressman Lloyd Doggett on Tuesday became the first sitting member of Congress to call on Biden to withdraw, citing the President’s weak poll numbers and debate performance. “President Biden has continued to run substantially behind Democratic senators in key states and in most polls has trailed Donald Trump,” Doggett said in a statement.  “I had hoped that the debate would provide some momentum to change that. It did not.”

One of Biden’s crucial Democratic allies, South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn, said on MSNBC Tuesday that he would support Vice President Harris if President Joe Biden were to step aside, an obvious statement for a co-chair of the Biden-Harris campaign, but one that took on additional meaning during a week when party leaders are having closed door conversations about the future of Biden’s candidacy.

Biden is still on track to become the party’s official nominee in the coming weeks when the Democratic National Committee holds a virtual roll call of delegates ahead of the party’s August convention in Chicago. The roll call vote is intended to ensure Biden’s name will be on ballots in Ohio, a state with an early ballot deadline.

But in the coming days, the prospect of Harris taking over the nomination is likely to continue to be a source of quiet conversations throughout the party.

Contact us at letters@time.com.