With her back against the wall, Kamala Harris surged. Will it last?

Within 24 hours of the debate, her team raised more than $2m in online donations, and she moved up in the polls

Kamala Harris is charming Iowa. She has more than doubled her campaign staff in New Hampshire and South Carolina. She enthused a crowd of black women at the Essence Festival with a multibillion-dollar plan to invest in black homeownership that matched concrete economic solutions with a fierce promise to right past wrongs.

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It is the jolt of energy that Harris campaign needed after months of struggling to stand out in the polls.

Harris performance on 27 June, in the first round of debates of the 2020 presidential race, was a much-needed win. Harris walked on stage ranked fifth in the most crowded Democratic race in history. She left basking in attention, having metaphorically kneecapped the frontrunner.

Within 24 hours, her team raised more than $2m in online donations, from 63,277 people more than half of whom were donating for the first time. In the days that followed, polls put her among the group of top candidates in the race.

With more than a year to the Democratic National Convention and 481 daysuntil the 2020 presidential election, its still anybodys game. Harris debate performance didnt win her a domineering spot in the polls. It didnt drown out the criticism shes gone back and forth on key policy ideas. It didnt obfuscate some of her controversial decisions as a California prosecutor. But shes back in the race.

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Six months ago, for her campaign launch announcement in Oakland, 20,000 people swarmed downtown chanting, Ka-ma-la! Ka-ma-la! Local police estimated that Harris drew a crowd larger than Barack Obama did when he announced his run for president in Illinois in 2007.

Harris spoke of her upbringing as a child of Indian and Jamaican parents in California, and she raised the mantle of her experience: her steady climb from career prosecutor to district attorney of San Francisco, to attorney general of California and becoming one of the states senators.

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Kamala Harris greets supporters in her kickoff rally for her 2020 presidential campaign at Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland, California. Photograph: UPI/Barcroft Images

She promised to prosecute the case against Donald Trump and fight for the one client she has fought for her entire life: the people. In her hometown of Oakland, deep in the heart of the self-fashioned resistance state, her message hit its target.

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When she announced, it was life-changing, said Kasie Barnes, a lifelong Oakland resident and mother of four. Ive always been familiar with her, Ive always been proud of her successes, proud of her fight, proud of her voice. Because her voice is my voice and now that I have children, her voice is their voice.

Harris had a profile that spoke to the Democratic partys rapidly changing base: she was a woman with a diverse background, and unapologetically so. She was a trailblazer: the first woman of color to be elected district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California. She stood for all the things that the man in the White House did not, and against all the things that he did.

She raised a jaw-dropping $1.5m in her first day. But as more and more people jumped into the race, the sheer volume of candidates began to water down the excitement that came with her launch.

Until the end of June, even in her populous home state, Harris consistently polled behind the former vice-president Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders. A UC Berkeley poll had her at fourth in California in mid June, behind Senator Elizabeth Warren. Nationwide, Quinnipiac University and Politico had her polling at fifth, after Warren or the South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Warren had elbowed her way into the spotlight with her I have a plan for that attitude. Buttigieg was on magazine covers after clips of him speaking in Norwegian went viral. Yet six months into the campaign, Harris was fielding questions about whether shed want to be Bidens running mate.

Theres nothing Harris has done wrong. Its just that shes one of many, David Latterman, a San Francisco-based political consultant, said in early June. Shes up against heavyweights. Her whole career was in California. Shes well-known in California, but outside of California, shes only just begun to make a name for herself.

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Kamala Harris talks during her first campaign organizing event at Los Angeles Southwest College 19 May 2019. Photograph: Richard Vogel/AP

Campaigns are not typically won in the spring of the off year one Harris adviser told the Guardian. He pointed out that even though she trailed behind Biden and Sanders, she remained in the top five in a race of more than two dozen. We have been putting the infrastructure in place for a push in the latter half of the year, he said.

To friends and supporters, Harris argued she has had her back against the wall before.

At a gala celebrating the Sun-Reporter, San Franciscos black community newspaper, around that time an event where most attendees had known each other for decades greeted each other with full-hearted hugs encompassing the entire body, and proudly donned Kamala pins Harris began her speech: When I pulled those papers in November of 2002 to run for district attorney of San Francisco, there were many, many, friends and those who were not friends, that said it cannot be done, no one like you has done this before, it will be difficult, it will be hard work, you should wait your turn.

The anecdote centered on praising Amelia Ashley-Ward, the publisher of the Sun-Reporter, but the message behind it was clear: Weve polled third, or even last, before. And look how that turned out.

In her 2010 campaign for attorney general, in the primary, I was told personally, by very influential electeds, that they did not think she could win, said Brian Brokaw, a Sacramento-based Democratic consultant who managed Harris campaign during her 2010 run for California attorney general. She proved everybody wrong.

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She thrives when her back is against the wall, Brokaw added. Its like fuel for her.

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Throughout the first six months of the campaign, Harris supporters had maintained: wait for the debates.

Shell take command of the stage in the same way she stole the spotlight while questioning Trump appointees, they promised. Shell display that keep-them-on-their-toes moxie that kept everyone listening on their toes.

When those debates come, she is going to kill it, her longtime friend Amelia Ashley-Ward said in May.

At the 27 June Democratic debate, Harrisbrought on the fire evenbefore the first commercial break. The stage had devolved into a chaos of candidates shouting at each other when Harris entered the fray: America does not want to witness a food fight, they want to know how were going to put food on their table.

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Harris took Biden to task for his relationship with segregationist senators and his record of not supporting desegregation bussing efforts during the Democratic presidential debates. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters

She was prosecuting, Latterman said. Of course the line was preplanned, but it was very well-played because she was literally standing between two men yelling at each other, right over her face.

And then Harris went for the jugular. As the only black person on this stage, I would like to speak on the issue of race, she said, before turning her attention to Biden.

I do not believe you are a racist, she continued, and then took him to task for his relationship with segregationist senators and his record of not supporting desegregation bussing efforts that directly benefited children like Harris.

There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bussed to school every day, Harris said to Biden. That little girl was me.

Within hours of that line, her website was selling T-shirts with the face of that little girl splashed on the front.

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Harris questions and interjections had been among her biggest strengths in her three years in the Senate. Her exchanges with the the supreme court justice Brett Kavanaugh over the Russia investigation and abortion rights led to memes of her skeptical face circulating around social media. Video of the 1 May Senate judiciary committee hearing in which she flusters attorney general William Barr over the Mueller report has notched millions of views.

Every time she has one of those judiciary committee moments, her social media and her donations spike, said Dan Schnur, a professor of political communications at UC Berkeley. Shes a very talented prosecutor, and a very tough questioner, and Democratic primary voters are going to cheer whenever they see someone beating up on a Trump appointee.

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Kamala Harris, left, with her sister, Maya, and mother, Shyamala, in 1970. Photograph: AP

The context behind the cheers is clear: if this is what she can do to a Trump appointee, what could she do to Trump himself? And, for many Democratic voters, kicking Donald Trump out of the White House is ultimately what the election is about.

She is someone whose toughness cant ever be questioned, Brokaw said. People who are supporting her know she would not shy away from a fight against Trump, and I think a lot of people are picturing the two of them on a debate stage together.

At a Harris town hall viewing party in Rancho Cordova, California, earlier this year, the question of which candidate was most likely to beat Trump was on everyones mind.

Shes great in public hearings, said Etta, a retired singer and legal assistant who asked to be identified only by her first name, over iced tea and brownies. Trump will not be able to cut her in pieces. Theres no way.

In Oakland, the Harris town hall viewing parties fill to capacity within hours. But in the small, conservative town in central California, the five attendees, all but one of them of retirement age, were excited they had found other people who are interested in Kamala.

She is unflappable when shes speaking, added Barbara. Thats something that we really need. I always trust her that shes going to say the right thing, shes going to lay it out clearly, and not stumble on her words.

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The question now is if the anticipation of a Trump v Harris showdown will be enough to ease some of the criticism and overcome some of the challenges the California senator has faced in recent months.

She has a natural constituency among women of color, a crucial constituent in the Democratic race to the White House, but she needs to get better at telling her personal story to those voters, said Aimee Allison, the founder of She the People. Her attack at the debate and the Essence Conference was a start Talking about her own experiences was part of the most powerful part with her exchange with Biden, Allison said but she must do more.

Its not just that because youre a woman of color, youre going to appeal. Thats not the case for Tulsi Gabbard, for example, Allison said. But if youre a woman of color who can speak with vulnerability, authenticity and power, that will make you stand out.

In tapping into that vulnerability, however, her prosecutorial experience gets viewed through a different lens. In the age of Black Lives Matter and broadening support for criminal justice reform, someone who has worked within the system her entire career cant exactly reinvent herself as someone now fighting against it. Harris describes herself as a progressive prosecutor, but has a track record endorsing policies now considered racist and ineffective as district attorney and attorney general. Kamala Harris is a cop, some of her critics on the left have argued, pointing at some of her decisions on issues including sex work, police reform, prosecutors misconduct, prisoners rights and truancy.

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Kamala Harris asks a question as the attorney general, William Barr, testifies before a Senate judiciary committee hearing on Capitol Hill. Photograph: Aaron P Bernstein/Reuters

Just last week, amid the celebrations over her debate performance, The Appeal, a not-for-profit media outlet focused on criminal justice reform, highlighted the wrongful conviction of Jamal Trulove under Harris tenure as district attorney. San Francisco ultimately agreed to pay Trulove $13.1m after a federal civil jury found that the police had coerced a witness into identifying him as the suspect. Trulove, an actor who is gaining recognition following his role in the film The Last Black Man in San Francisco, tweeted, That Black man was me! a glib reference to one of Harris one-liners in the debate.

Every candidates record is going to be scrutinized in this race, her campaign adviser shrugged. This is not a walk in the park. This is the competition to be leader of the free world. Everybodys record should be scrutinized.

Others have questioned Harris hesitancy to clarify her position on more divisive policy questions in the first months of the campaign. After the CNN town hall in April, political pundits pilloried Harris for continually answering, I think we should have that conversation. They criticized her for taking too cautious a stance, for being too deliberate, too guarded.

Even Etta, one of the women at the Rancho Cordova watch party, was quick to pipe in with a snarky aside. Oh, cop-out answer! she hollered, when Harris punted.

Harris faced a similar criticism last week, when her answers on whether shed support federally-mandated bussing appeared to change. Her team later explained that it was a question of nuance, not yes or no she supported the federally-mandated bussing that allowed that little girl to go to elementary school in 1970, but understands that times are different now.

She came out on the technical side of right in this fight, but dinged nonetheless. She was scathed even morefor her position on eliminating private health insurance, an issue she had already walked back but raised her hand in favor of during the debate. She later had to clarify that she misinterpreted the question.

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Civil rights leader Al Sharpton escorts Kamala Harris past media and well wishers as they arrive at Sylvias Restaurant in the Harlem neighborhood of New York, 21 February 2019. Photograph: Bebeto Matthews/AP

Where is she politically?, asked Latterman, the San Francisco-based political consultant. She seems to be moving to the left. More exposure is going to expose more of what her politics are, and I think to some extent, shes still trying to figure that out on a national level.

She is not one to make rash or hasty decisions, conceded Brokaw, her former campaign manager. He sees that as working in her favor, however. Voters, having been through almost [three] years of a president who is beyond reckless, are looking for someone who is both bold and deliberate in her way of acting and thinking, he said.

Harris supporters in San Francisco argue that given the chance, she will beat Trump.

After all, this is the woman who faced off with an incumbent district attorney from a storied San Francisco family, and won. This is the woman who remained steadfast for three weeks after the 2010 attorney general election while the state tallied up mail-in and provisional ballots, and won by a margin of 50,000 votes.

I was for her from the very beginning and I will continue to support her because I know that her heart is right, Ashley-Ward said. People are drawn to her. When they see her on TV, taking on these powerful men who think they can do anything, say anything and get away with anything, people are impressed with that because I think 98% of Americans wouldnt take on these guys. Shes not afraid.

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