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JIM VIBERT: Kamala Harris is the Democrat to watch

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks during a Fourth of July House Party in Indianola, Iowa
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks during a Fourth of July House Party in Indianola, Iowa - Reuters

There are about 20 people that most Americans couldn’t pick out of a police lineup seeking the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. Few, if any, will survive to fight the first primary in New Hampshire.

The handful of top contenders includes an amiable old white guy and an angry/cranky old white guy. The former, Joe Biden was vice-president as recently as January 2017, and the latter, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders threw a scare into Hillary Clinton when the two sparred over the nomination in 2016.

American Democrats and their assorted allies are sizing up the two dozen would-be nominees against a singular imperative. Who can beat Trump?

Name recognition — and in Biden’s case the sense that he is the most “electable” of the lot — put the two aforementioned septuagenarians atop virtually every poll until last week, when over two nights everything changed.

Two groups, each with 10 contenders, engaged in televised debates. Because of the large number of candidates, opportunities to stand out and gain ground were thought to be limited.

But political lightning struck twice. From each of the debates a candidate emerged, not merely to gain ground on the frontrunners, but to join or pass them atop the crowded field.

Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren’s performance on the first night placed her solidly among the top-tier candidates, and several polls have her ahead of Sanders, running third behind Biden and the consensus run-away winner of the second debate, California senator Kamala Harris.

Harris’s debate performance catapulted her from the middle of the pack to within striking distance of Biden, whose lead in the polls was nearly erased following the debates.

A Suffolk University/USA Today poll of people who are likely to attend the Iowa Democratic caucuses next February still has Biden in front but, since the debate, Harris made up the most ground, leapfrogging Sanders and a few lesser lights to land firmly in second place.

The Iowa caucuses are the first test on the long road to the nomination, and it was there that a young African-American senator from Illinois proved he could win over white voters. His narrow win in Iowa started Barack Obama on a journey that would end in the White House.

It’s too early to suggest Harris can replicate Obama’s Iowa breakthrough, but she is suddenly the most intriguing candidate in the field.

The evidence is limited, but it seems that Kamala Harris’s star rises each time Americans — or at least those Americans who want an antidote to Trump — see her in action.

She reduced Trump’s mouthpiece, Attorney General William Barr to a bumbling, stumbling lump when she questioned him before the Senate judiciary committee about his misrepresentation of the Mueller Report. Barr wrote that Mueller cleared Trump of obstruction of justice, but Mueller’s report clearly states that if he could clear the president of the crime, he would. But he couldn’t, so he didn’t.

She commanded the debate stage she shared with Biden and Sanders, and she schooled the former vice-president on racial integration of public schools in the 1970s. Harris is a beneficiary of school integration. She was among the early wave of black kids bused to all-white schools in Oakland, where she says she got an education that set her on a path to Howard University and the University of California law school.

From what she’s shown so far — and again, the evidence is limited — Kamala Harris has all the markings of a once-in-a-generation political talent. She’s razor sharp but doesn’t flaunt it. She’s authentic, both an optimist and a realist, and perhaps most importantly, her evisceration of Barr and diminution of Biden suggest she’s more than a match for Trump, particularly in a head-to-head encounter.

The polls say a slim plurality of Democrats still believe Biden’s the choice. They seem to think their nice old white guy can best the Republicans’ mean-spirited old white guy.

It seems more likely that a candidate who is Trump’s opposite will mobilize the majority of Americans who have never supported Trump. Harris fits that mould.

Former Obama staffer, author and political commentator Van Jones said it best following the debate.

"A star was born tonight,” Jones said of Harris. “This is a masterful performance. She completely dominated the stage. And, most importantly, she would kick Donald Trump's butt and she proved it tonight.”

The Democrats won’t have a presidential nominee, officially, until their convention next July. Candidates will rise and fall during the ensuing year, but from what Kamala Harris has shown so far, she may be the anti-Trump so many Americans are desperately seeking.

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