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Kamala Harris confronts the 'elephant in the room' on the campaign trail

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Image: Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., takes the stage during a campaign even
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., takes the stage during a campaign event in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Feb. 18, 2019. -
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Brian Snyder Reuters
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PORTSMOUTH, NH — Kicking off her first New Hampshire town hall, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., asked the audience to let her address "the elephant in the room" before she went any further.

The crowd waited for her to continue...Was it about her record as a prosecutor and attorney general? Was it about her position on climate change or health care? Was it about the Jussie Smollett case, which she'd been asked about by a reporter earlier in the day?

"I intend to compete in New Hampshire," she said at the Monday event. "I intend to spend time here. I intend to shake every hand that I possibly can. I want to talk with you, I want to listen to you, I want to be challenged by you."

It was one of several times Harris made the point during her visit. "I plan on doing well here," she said in her opening remarks at a Politics and Eggs breakfast at St. Anselm College on Tuesday.

From the outside, it might have seemed too obvious to mention: Why would a presidential candidate be there if not to campaign?

But in a state that can be prickly about defending its first-in-the-nation primary status and whose voters like to see their candidates up close and often, Harris was aware she may have some skeptics. After all, it wasn't just her first campaign stop in New Hampshire — it was her first visit to the state.

The freshman Democrat's path to her party's nomination runs more through South Carolina, where black women are a potentially decisive voting bloc, and California, where her home-state advantage could help her earn a trove of delegates days later.

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"People in New Hampshire were worried when she got in the race that she'd focus on Iowa and South Carolina and skip New Hampshire or give it token attention," Chris Galdieri, an associate professor at St. Anselm College, told NBC News.

Harris faces tough competition headlined by 2016 New Hampshire primary winner Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and fellow New EnglanderSen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., among others, but writing off the state would be a risk for Harris. Prior candidates who planned on using later contests to jump start their runs have sometimes fizzled out with weak performances in Iowa and New Hampshire.

"From her perspective, she doesn't need to win, but she does need to do well," Galdieri said.

So far, so good. If Harris was suffering from hurt feelings among voters who expected her to be there sooner, there wasn't any evidence at her events.

In Portsmouth, a line of hundreds of people stretched around the block in the freezing snow to attend her town hall. Harris stopped by the crowd outside before the event and at an indoor spillover area to thank them for coming and to apologize that the venue had unfortunately reached its capacity at 1,500 people.

"There's certainly a level of excitement (around her visit)," said Raymond Buckley, the state Democratic Party chairman. "Very few New Hampshire Democrats have actually met her."

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., greets the crowd outside of a campaign event in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Feb. 18, 2019.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., greets the crowd outside of a campaign event in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Feb. 18, 2019.Brian Snyder

Addressing the audience, Harris hit her campaign themes of "truth and justice," telling the crowd it was time to face facts and confront issues like inequality and racism. She drew big applause declaring her support for Medicare For All and for the Green New Deal. She told one person in attendance that she'd support a proposal to rename Columbus Day "Indigenous Peoples' Day."

Harris also put a heavy emphasis on criminal justice reform, an area where her prosecutorial background has been a double-edged sword.

"We have failed to put the resources into our public education system and instead we are putting tons of money into a system of mass incarceration," she said in Portsmouth. The next day she called the war on drugs "an abject failure."

Several voters at her event volunteered that they saw her law-and-order experience as a positive, with some citing her lawyerly questioning of Trump officials and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh as a key part of their support. But they had also heard rumblings of criticism surrounding her record from the left, which has raised concerns that Harris was too cautious about backing progressive reforms on issues like sentencing, the death penalty and police brutality.

Marques Milbourne, 35, called Harris "by far the best candidate" and his top choice for president as he and his wife waited outside. But he wanted to learn more about her record on crime, some of which, Milbourne said, "sounds concerning" based on his conversations with friends.

"I like her law enforcement aspect," Rose Downes, 52, said after her town hall while wearing a "Kamala Harris For President 2020" shirt. "I know it's not PC to say."

What may distinguish Harris the most so far is her upbeat tone. Rivals like Warren and Sanders have taken a more adversarial approach, casting their campaigns as a crusade against wealthy elites who have manipulated government and rigged the system to boost profits at the expense of the working-and middle-class.

Harris, while not ignoring these ideas, has emphasized a more warm-and-fuzzy togetherness rather than a call to arms.

"We are an aspirational nation," she said. "We've not quite met those ideals, we know that, but our nature is to fight to achieve them and we cannot lose that aspirational nature of who we are, because that is part of our strength."

At St. Anselm, she said she disagreed with the notion that "people who have worked hard and gained success should be vilified."

"I don't believe that, I applaud that, that's pursuit of the American Dream," she said, even as she added that not everyone has equal opportunity under the present system.

Harris did not mention President Donald Trump often, but did throw some punches over the recent government shutdown and she called the wall one of his "vanity projects."

"You talk with the people who take an oath to protect our border and they will tell you that trafficking that is happening of drugs and guns coming into our country, it's happening at ports of entry," she said. "We don't need a multi-billion dollar wall. That wall ain't gonna stop them."