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At her final stop on a two-day campaign swing through Iowa, California Sen. Kamala Harris was approached by a woman wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “The Supremes,” featuring emoji-like versions of the four women who have served on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Towards the end of the conversation, the woman began to tear up.
“I wear this shirt to remind me it’s not all bad,” she told Harris, apologizing and wiping away the tears.
Harris assured the woman there was no shame in getting emotional.
“Let me just tell you something, it’s a sign of strength to have feelings,” Harris told her. “Those people who don’t have feelings, they’re weak. People who have feelings, that’s a sign of strength.”
This kind of encounter, Harris says, has become only more common since the nation was captivated last month by the nationally-testified testimonies of Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
As a Democrat on the committee with presidential ambitions, Harris took on a high-profile role questioning Kavanaugh and protesting the process.
“You were riveting, you calmed us down no matter what the outcome was going to be,” Sharon Poplawski of Cedar Rapids told Harris after her event. “You have the perfect temperament for this,” she said.
In the wake of the hearings, Harris says women — and even some men — of all ages have come up to her at airports and lines in the grocery store and related their personal experiences.
“It’s happening a lot … and for a lot of people that have come up to me — I don’t know if they’ve told other people, but they tell me about what happened to them,” Harris told reporters an hour after the room in Cedar Rapids had mostly emptied and only reporters, a few campaign aides, volunteers and her sister, Maya, remained.
For Harris, the increased visibility on the issue of sexual assault recently is a welcome change from the past.
“This is an issue where … 30 years ago … we didn’t talk about it. It was ‘Oh, that’s private folks business, what the king does in his castle is his business. Oh, no, no.’ But if she’s walking around with her teeth busted out, that’s not just their business,” Harris said, “One of the things that came out of [the Kavanaugh hearings] that may be something that we can translate into a strength is that we are now going to talk about this issue.”
An increased willingness to talk about the issue of sexual assault is a trend seen nationwide following the Kavanaugh hearings.
RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, estimated that during the testimonies of Ford and Kavanaugh, the National Sexual Assault Hotline saw a 147 percent increase in calls.
Harris was also asked by a reporter from a local high school in Iowa City about what message she has for young girls who might be afraid to speak out about sexual assault in light of the Kavanaugh hearings and his subsequent confirmation to the Supreme Court.
“Do not be discouraged, because there are more of us who will create and provide a safe space for them to come forward, and those that will not,” Harris said.
2018 provides a 2020 preview
Harris was in Iowa to boost two Democratic hopefuls who also happen to be women: Iowa Secretary of State nominee Deirdre Dejear and congressional candidate Cindy Axne, but the atmosphere surrounding the trip was unmistakably tinted with hints of her future plans.
Harris’ stump speech is already well-honed and full of the soaring rhetoric one would expect from a future presidential contender.
“Let’s speak another truth that I believe is particularly important in this moment in time, where we have so many powerful voices that are trying to sew hate and division among us,” Harris told a crowd of just over 100 people at a community college in Ankeny, Iowa, this week, “Let’s speak the truth that for the vast majority of us as Americans, we have so much more in common than what separates us.”
The Iowa trip was Harris’ first since 2008 when she campaigned for then-Sen. Barack Obama, and came directly after a swing through the state of South Carolina, another key state in the presidential nominating process for Democrats. But despite all the telltale signs of a politician in the midst of preparing a presidential run, Harris insists the trip was all about the here and now.
“I’m really focused on the next 15 days. You can focus on whatever you’re thinking about,” Harris said in response to a question from ABC News on Monday about her presidential aspirations.
But Harris’ protests aside, her presence in Iowa and her aggressive campaign strategy suggest a politician aware of the groundwork that must be laid in order to mount a presidential campaign.
Prior to her Iowa trip, Politico reported that Harris transferred $25,000 to the state parties in the first four states holding presidential nomination contests in 2020: Iowa, South Carolina, Nevada and New Hampshire.
Iowa Democrats who showed up to Harris’ events were keenly aware of her potential role in the race to deny Donald Trump a second term.
“Run for president, Kamala!” one man at her stop in Ankeny yelled, prompting a giggle from Harris.
Other supporters expressed similar enthusiasm for a Harris presidential candidacy.
“Watching her on Senate committees she asks really good questions and she gets her answers, and I appreciate that about her,” Sarah Zigtema of West Des Moines told ABC News, adding “Also, I’d just love to see her go up against Donald Trump because I think she’d kick his butt.”
“I like that she calls out the president for his outright lies and falsehoods,” said Carter Winton, a 41-year-old tech consultant from Urbandale, Iowa.
Ryan Frank, a junior at the University of Iowa who had an extended conversation with Harris on the topic of fascism after her event on campus, said he followed her closely and could see her as a potential candidate to go up against Trump in 2020.
“I would say any option is good but I really do love Kamala Harris and I have tons of faith in her. So, if that were in the cards for her, she’d have my vote,” Frank told ABC News.
“I think that she is a rising star in the Democratic Party, I think that she definitely has the potential, whether it’s in this next election or possibly the one afterward,” said Darrell Hagans, a Des Moines-based employee at a software company.
Rob Hogg, a member of the Iowa state Senate representing Cedar Rapids, told ABC News that he liked Harris, but that it is “really too early to tell,” if she is a true presidential contender. Hogg also noted that former Vice President Joe Biden will be in the state next week to campaign with the Democratic nominee for Iowa governor, Fred Hubbell, and congressional candidate Abby Finkenauer.
Whatever decision Harris makes, mingling with supporters in Cedar Rapids she stressed perhaps the most important thing for any prospective presidential contender hoping to make a personal impression with voters.
“It’s about connecting with each other, and that physical connection,” Harris told volunteers from Planned Parenthood’s Iowa chapter, “Because so many people right now don’t feel like they’re being seen. So when you guys are volunteering and you’re out there knocking on doors, it really makes a difference.”
Harris may have been talking about the election in less than two weeks, but for a Californian barnstorming across Iowa, it’s a sentence that could easily be uttered by a candidate for the highest office in America.