WASHINGTON — Kamala Harris nodded knowingly when a Black woman at a weekend candidate forum recounted watching her mother face racial discrimination during her childhood.
"You and I have a similar experience growing up," said Harris, the California senator and former prosecutor who would be the first Black woman elected president. "I don't talk about it often. But I remember walking into a department store and people looking at my mother assuming she couldn't afford to buy what she was looking at."
She also recalled watching her mother brace herself around law enforcement or seeing people assume her mother was a housekeeper, not a scientific researcher — and explained how they shaped her commitment to fighting discrimination.
It was the kind of moment some Harris advisers and allies have been waiting for: the blending of Harris' polished political resume with a revealing glimpse at the forces that have shaped her life and her vision for the presidency.
Defining that vision is one of Harris' central challenges through the summer, according to aides and allies to the senator. It's seen as a missing ingredient in a campaign that, for all its strengths — a historic candidate, a strong campaign apparatus and an impressive fundraising network — has been criticized as overly cautious and risks being passed by rival campaigns. Early polling shows Harris trailing former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and facing strong competition from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
LaTosha Brown, the co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, is among those who said she wants to support Harris but finds herself still wondering what the candidate stands for.
"We're anxious to hear from her," Brown said. "She should shape this narrative before it's shaped for her."
Brown was one of about a dozen Democratic organizers, strategists and Harris allies who raised concerns about the senator's struggles to define her candidacy and build off her impressive launch earlier this year. Some shared their thoughts — a mix of concern, bewilderment and frustration — on condition of anonymity in order to speak freely about a campaign many support.
David Axelrod, the longtime political adviser to former President Barack Obama, said that while Harris has "enormous assets," she has struggled to refine the message and rationale for her pursuit of the presidency.
"You have to have a story and that story has to be the connective tissue through everything you do," Axelrod said.
Harris advisers see plenty of opportunity for growth, pointing to polls that show large swaths of the Democratic electorate want to learn more about the California senator — a metric they see more as a sign of interest in the candidate than a warning that she remains an enigma to many. Although Harris was initially reluctant, she is now consciously trying to incorporate more personal details in her campaign trail speeches and answers to voters.
"The more people learn about Kamala Harris, the more they like her," said Kirsten Allen, Harris' deputy national press secretary. "She's showing people who she is and why she's uniquely qualified to prosecute the case against four more years of Donald Trump."
While Harris' campaign disputes the notion of a revamped strategy, advisers concede that they need to spend more time helping voters understand not only what Harris would do as president but also what motivates her and what has shaped her. Their goal: to leave voters with the impression of a candidate who is both strong and warm.
The effort was apparent over the weekend in South Carolina, where Harris attended a Planned Parenthood forum focused on abortion rights and the state's Democratic Party convention. She appeared most comfortable embracing her past as a prosecutor, which has drawn scrutiny from some progressives pushing for an overhaul of the criminal justice system.
Harris has at times appeared defensive about her record as California attorney general and San Francisco district attorney. But she leaned into her experience on Saturday, declaring that it positioned her best among the Democratic field to "prosecute" the case against Trump in next year's general election.
"I know how to get that job done," Harris said. "We need somebody on our stage when it comes time for the general election who knows how to recognize a rap sheet when they see it and prosecute the case."
Some Harris supporters bristle at what they see as echoes of the criticism leveled in 2016 against Hillary Clinton, who despite her vast experience struggled at times to define a rationale for her candidacy and could appear overly attuned to the political winds as she formulated policy positions. Harris' instincts can often appear similar. She has a habit of answering tricky policy questions by stating she wants to have a "conversation" and has pulled back stances she took on eliminating private health insurance and potentially giving imprisoned felons the right to vote.
Aimee Allison, the founder of She the People, a political advocacy network for women of color, said that as a Black woman, Harris is under pressure to "be twice as good, twice as polished, twice as prepared."
"Women of color are also expected to make this herculean effort look effortless, open, authentic," Allison said.
Maisha Leek, who has supported Harris since her 2003 campaign for San Francisco district attorney, said she wasn't surprised that Harris was facing questions about her cautiousness — nor was she surprised that she was finding ways to combat them.
"This is Kamala. She is steady as she goes," said Leek, an executive at the venture fund Human Ventures. "People underestimate her every single time. It is to their peril." — (AP)