PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Under the soaring ceiling of a classical revival church, Senator Kamala Harris delivered a homily of sorts this week to more than 1,000 Democrats who squeezed in to see her first visit to the early primary state.
“We are better than this,” she said, telling Democrats rattled by Donald Trump’s unconventional presidency that Americans could draw on shared values to put things right once more.
“I believe this is a moment and a time to restore truth and justice,” she said.
Thousands of miles away, standing in front of 1,400 people in an airy theater north of Los Angeles, Senator Elizabeth Warren didn’t sound like she wanted to restore much of anything.
“When I say I want to make change, I don’t mean I want to get one statute passed here or a couple of regulations over there or maybe a bill over here, even two or three,” Warren said as the crowd roared. “I want to make big, structural change.”
Their contrasting messages reflect the broader divide among the crowded field of Democrats eager to take back the White House.
Does the party want a standard-bearer like Harris, who tells a story of a fundamentally good nation that she promises to put back on track? Or is this a moment to elect a change agent like Warren, who wants radical reforms to fix a problem she says is much bigger than Trump?
They are fundamental questions, framed by two senators from deep blue states who visited each other’s backyards as presidential candidates for the first time Monday. In Los Angeles, voters who sent Kamala Harris to the Senate lined up around the block to hear Warren’s scathing diagnosis of the country’s problems, while New Hampshire voters who have been Warren’s neighbors for years squeezed in to hear Harris’s emotional and uplifting call for a restoration of the nation’s loftier instincts.
But the contrast could become a key stylistic difference in a primary that is full of liberal darlings, many of whom have already embraced progressive proposals like Medicare for all and the Green New Deal.
Candidates like Harris, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, among others, are calling on the nation’s better angels to hit “reset” and move on from Trump. And if former vice president Joe Biden jumps in the race, he would be perfectly positioned to campaign for a return to the Obama years that many Democrats are nostalgic for.
But Warren’s pitch, which is similar to the one Bernie Sanders offered after jumping into the presidential race on Tuesday, reflects the fact that voters are more distrustful of the nation’s political institutions than at any time in recent history.
A yearning for drastic change in many ways punctuated the 2016 election. Republicans picked Trump, who claimed his personal wealth made him immune to the plethora of money and influence-buying in politics, and many more Democrats than expected backed Sanders, who railed against big-money donors influencing elections.
Many of the new rising stars in the Democratic Party, like Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, were elected during the midterms on messages of radical change, as well.
“An argument that the system is fundamentally broken and needs a shock to the system — that’s actually got a pretty good track record of being a successful argument,” said Brian Fallon, a former top aide to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Charles Chamberlain, the chair of the grass-roots liberal group Democracy for America, said it can be risky for Democrats to campaign on a return-to-normalcy message. “Democrats are hungry for real change and I would argue that’s part of why we lost in 2016,” he said.
Speaking in Glendale on Monday night, Warren opened with one of her sweeping policy ideas — a universal child care plan that she said would be paid for by a tax on the wealth of the richest Americans — before drawing standing ovations with her calls for specific policies she said would remake the nation’s economic and political system.
“Whatever brought you here tonight, the reason your government doesn’t respond to you is because of what’s happening in Washington,” Warren said. “The place is corrupt.”
The crowd booed when she talked about “giant multinational corporations,” cheered when she called for voter suppression and gerrymandering laws to be “swept out,” and roared on their feet when she called on all federal candidates to release their tax returns. At one point, when Warren said she would mention just “one more” item in her chore list of change, someone in the audience yelled “five more!”
For Noah Reich, 29, a voter in the audience, that “fierce platform” had made Warren his first choice for president. “The normal that worked for so long,” he said, did not work for everybody.
But since 2016, Trump has provided Democrats with such a massive dose of unwanted change that some are craving a return to normalcy — not a revolution.
“If she can make everything better, more power to her,” said Miryam Finkelberg, 60, another Democrat in the crowd at Warren’s event. “We just need someone better than what we have.”
That’s an attitude Sylvia Larsen, former president of the New Hampshire Senate, said she has heard from many of the voters who have attended house parties she has hosted for both Warren and Gillibrand.
“They aren’t angry, they just want change,” Larsen said. “They want to return to some rational sense of government that does what it’s supposed to do instead of the chaos we’ve got from Trump.”
Harris nodded to this collective fatigue during her town hall meeting in Portsmouth Monday, joking with voters about how many needed “therapy” to cope with the Trump era, and have to restrain themselves from throwing things at the TV while watching the news. But instead of dwelling on Washington’s problems or making a systemic critique of the place, Harris reminded voters of the young undocumented immigrants who showed up in droves at the Capitol to push for immigration reform.
“There is an incredible amount of power in the people of our country and conviction and hopefulness and we cannot lose that,” she reminded the crowd. “We must remember . . . that part of our strength is those principles and ideals upon which we were founded.”
Jim Gedeon, a voter who drove an hour and a half from Concord to see Harris at her town hall Monday evening, said he appreciated her uplifting style and way of connecting her platform to her personal story.
“That’s how you connect with people — you don’t just throw policy at them,” Gedeon said.
Harris’s more upbeat rhetoric doesn’t mean her platform isn’t progressive. She supports liberal policy changes like the Green New Deal, an assault weapons ban, and Medicare for all. She also touted her tax cut plan that would refund up to $500 a month to families making less than $100,000 per year. But her style and policy positions focus less on sweeping change than Sanders and Warren do.
And while Harris may not make overt calls for radical change on the stump, her candidacy itself represents a huge break from the past. Harris, who is just the second black woman elected to the Senate, would be the first woman and woman of color to be elected president.
“People may envision Harris as being the change candidate, even if it’s Warren talking about systemic change,” Fallon said.Liz Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin. Jess Bidgood can be reached at email@example.com.