Column: After Biden's debate fiasco, Harris or Newsom could be Plan B

SAN LEANDRO, CA - SEPTEMBER 08: Vice President Kamala Harris joins California Governor Gavin Newsroom at a rally against the upcoming gubernatorial recall election at the IBEW-NECA Joint Apprenticeship Training Center on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021 in San Leandro, CA. The recall election, which will be held on September 14, 2021, asks voters to respond two questions: whether Newsom, a Democrat, should be recalled from the Office of Governor, and who would succeed Newsom should he be recalled. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
Vice President Kamala Harris with California Gov. Gavin Newsom at a rally in San Leandro in 2021. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

As pressure mounts on President Biden to quit his reelection race after a shockingly dismal debate performance, the spotlight will turn more intensely on two Californians: Vice President Kamala Harris and Gov. Gavin Newsom.

And although California won’t matter in the November election — whoever is the Democratic nominee will easily carry the state — its huge delegation to the party’s national convention in August could play a decisive role in choosing a Biden replacement.

Harris would top the initial list of possible substitutes with Newsom close behind.

But Harris, 59, has been less popular than Biden, according to polls. And she’s widely considered a drag on the ticket. One fear of many voters is that if Biden, 81, didn’t last out his second term, he’d be replaced as president by Harris.

The former California attorney general looked sharp, however, in a post-debate interview on CNN. And although I’ve long been a critic, I got the feeling while watching her that she might not be a campaign disaster after all.

In fact, Harris might perform well on the stump. Drop the robotic script and be more spontaneous. She certainly would be a more competitive debater against Republican Donald Trump than the weak Biden.

Harris showed genuine conviction — a look she usually lacks — in pitching Biden’s policies. She tried to put the best face on his debate performance.

Read more: Newsom praises Biden, shoots down post-debate questions about replacing him

“Yes, there was a slow start. That’s obvious to everyone,” she said. “But it was a strong finish.”

Well, no it wasn’t, but he did improve — after badly damaging himself, probably beyond repair.

One Harris hurdle, however, is that party leaders remember she bombed running for president in 2020.

Then there’s Newsom, 56.

If Newsom ever wants to run for president — and he acts like he does — now may be his best opportunity, assuming Biden can be coaxed out. There’s persistent speculation about him running in 2028. But he’s in the limelight now and there could be a Democratic incumbent seeking reelection in four years.

Newsom is already warmed up. The two-term governor has been promoting himself nationally while attacking red state policies and playing the role of an enthusiastic Biden surrogate. He has a veteran campaign organization.

Roger Strassburg, of Scottsdale, Ariz., wears a cowboy hat as he watches the presidential debate
Roger Strassburg wears a cowboy hat as he watches Thursday's debate between President Biden and former President Trump in Scottsdale, Ariz. (Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

But Newsom would need to compete for the nomination against Harris, his old San Francisco ally. And he has said publicly he wouldn’t do that. If he did, he’d be considered a party pariah, especially among Black women, Newsom has said privately.

Actually, I’ve never thought that a California Democrat could be elected president in this era of hardened polarization. Our politics are just too leftist for most of America.

Newsom has Hollywood looks and oratorical skills. But his biggest political asset — being California governor — is also his biggest vulnerability.

One strength that both Harris and Newsom have, however, is that California’s delegation will be by far the largest at the Democratic convention. Presumably it would back a California candidate.

The 496-member slate will field 22% of the votes needed to win the nomination. So if Biden leaves the race, California could play a big role in choosing his successor.

Who else is a possibility? For starters, two governors of key battleground states: Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania. There’s also Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

Read more: Column: Kamala Harris should never have run for president

There’s no perfect candidate. But Trump is thoroughly imperfect.

Biden loyalists and lethargic naysayers have contended for months that it’s too late to change horses while the presidential race is underway, especially now that it has neared the final lap. Nonsense.

Conventions were invented to fight over nominations. But smoke-filled rooms unfortunately got a bad name and the Democratic Party went overboard on reforms. And the conventions became boring television shows that fewer people watched.

Republicans had the last convention battle in 1976 when they nominated President Ford over Californian Ronald Reagan. Ford then was beaten by Democrat Jimmy Carter. The last good Democratic brawl was in 1972 when the California delegation propelled George McGovern into the nomination. He was pummeled by President Nixon, a native Californian.

So convention battles sometimes backfire on a party. But this year could be different.

A Democratic donnybrook could stir new interest in the party and wake up the slumbering base that keeps telling pollsters it wants a president much younger than the 81-year-old incumbent.

Political leaders have a bad habit of plugging their ears when the public is saying things they don’t want to hear.

Voters aren’t satisfied with either of their choices. Trump, 78, seems healthier than Biden, at least physically. But Trump’s a pathological liar. “The morals of an alley cat,” Biden told him during the debate.

The voters’ anxiety about Biden’s ability to adequately serve a second term was re-stoked in his halting, hoarse-voiced, awkward performance. He seemed to lose his train of thought at least once and had trouble finishing sentences.

It was the worst presidential debate performance ever.

President Reagan blew his first debate against Democrat Walter Mondale in 1984, raising concerns about his age at 73. But he wasn’t nearly as painful to watch as Biden. Reagan fully recovered in a second debate.

Even if Biden’s decision-making is sound, people perceive him as weak. And that means he’d have difficulty leading the country.

If Trump’s election really would endanger democracy, as Biden contends, then the president should step aside to give the party a better chance of defeating the unfit jerk. He’ll naturally resist that. But those he trusts should level with him and push.

“You don’t turn your back [on someone] after one performance,” Newsom told a TV interviewer. “What kind of party does that?”

A winning party that prioritizes its principles and the nation.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.