Senator Kamala Harris visited New Hampshire on Monday for the first time in her life, and quickly experienced the realities of being a presidential candidate: She faced questions from national reporters about her political ideology and her description of the alleged assault on the actor Jussie Smollett as “an attempted modern day lynching,” followed by a town-hall-style forum with a big crowd of more than 1,000 voters.
Unlike most presidential hopefuls, who come to New Hampshire years before the primary, Senator Harris — who is from California and relatively new to the national political stage — waited until roughly a year before the primary to show up. Barack Obama, who had never been to New Hampshire before running for president, visited the state in December 2006, about 13 months before its 2008 primary.
Ms. Harris knew that her lack of time in the state might raise eyebrows, and she addressed it head-on at the town hall meeting in Portsmouth.
“Let me address the elephant in the room,” she began, then laughed, saying that there were no elephants — the mascot of the Republican Party — in this particular room.
“I intend to compete in New Hampshire,” she declared. “I intend to spend time here. I intend to shake every hand I possibly can,” she said to wild applause from the hundreds of people packed into the large sanctuary of Portsmouth’s historic South Church.
And, she said, “I intend to do very well in New Hampshire.”
That drew big applause, too, but it was a careful hedge. Ms. Harris is fully aware that her challengers for the Democratic nomination are likely to include one if not two fellow senators from neighboring states: Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts has already announced her candidacy, and Bernie Sanders from Vermont is expected to announce soon. New Hampshire has a long history of favoring New England candidates.
Despite Mr. Sanders’s popularity here — he won 60 percent of the vote in the 2016 primary — Ms. Harris distanced herself from him at an earlier event in Concord. Asked if she would have to tack to the left like Mr. Sanders to do well in New Hampshire, she drew a line in the sand.
“The people of New Hampshire will tell me what’s required to compete in New Hampshire, but I will tell you I am not a democratic socialist,” she said. Mr. Sanders describes himself as a democratic socialist, a label that some prominent Democrats have also embraced, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
During that visit in Concord before the town hall, Ms. Harris also seemed unsure at first when she was asked about a message from her Twitter account on Jan. 29 about Mr. Smollett, whose story about being attacked in Chicago by two men yelling racist and homophobic comments is now under investigation by the police. Chicago news media outlets have reported that detectives are reviewing whether the attack Mr. Smollett reported had been a hoax.
“Which tweet? What tweet?” Ms. Harris said in response to the question about her use of the “modern day lynching” phrase. After a moment, she said, “I think the facts are still unfolding and I’m very concerned” about the initial allegation by Mr. Smollett. She said “there should be an investigation” and declined to comment further until it was complete.
At Ms. Harris’s town hall in Portsmouth, people squeezed in from wall to wall and lines stretched down the street for two blocks; there was an overflow crowd outside was turned away. Most members of the audience, which varied widely in age and was predominantly white, enthusiastically leapt to their feet repeatedly to applaud her liberal positions, even if she often lacked detail.
Ms. Harris said America was not working for working people, that health care costs were driving people to near bankruptcy and that she supported “Medicare for all.” She blasted the pharmaceutical companies for an “immoral” system in which they “gouge the public” and are more concerned with profits than public health. Although she was not asked about the state’s opioid crisis, one of the worst in the country, she brought it up a couple of times.
She railed against gun violence, described climate change as man-made and endorsed the Green New Deal. She lamented that money that should be spent on public education was instead going to mass incarceration. She endorsed comprehensive immigration reform.
In an answer to a question, she said she would support changes in voting laws that would allow for same-day registration and make Election Day a national holiday. In answer to another question, she said she supported renaming Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Some answers were more vague than others. One questioner, noting that the Democrats generally appeal to voters on the coasts, asked her how she would appeal to the heartland.
“I reject the notion that depending on where you were born, you don’t identify with someone else,” she responded. “This election will come down to who the American public believes will be a leader.”
The audience also responded heartily to her veiled references to President Trump, whom she did not name. They rose to their feet and cheered when she denounced “his vanity project,” the wall on the southern border with Mexico.
Although Ms. Harris’s lack of history in the state might fly in the face of New Hampshire tradition, it does not seem to have hindered her in the slightest.
“There was some question about whether she was going to campaign here,” said Michael O’Leary, 62, a retired insurance manager. “But she made that commitment to retail politics, and that’s what people here expect.” He called her “fantastic.”
Ms. Harris has already hired a state campaign director, Craig Brown, as well as a political director here, Meredith Shevitz.
Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire, said that with Ms. Warren and possibly Mr. Sanders in the race, New Hampshire was not an essential win for Ms. Harris, which may partly explain her late start.
“A third-place showing here would be fine,” he said. “For her, South Carolina is more of a make-or-break state.”
And in any event, he said, “she has California waiting for her,” referring to the earlier-than-usual 2020 primary in her home state that could play a major role in the nomination contest.