NOEL KING, HOST:
California Sen. Kamala Harris has a unique role in the upcoming Supreme Court confirmation battle. She's a high-profile Democratic voice on the committee that will vet President Trump's eventual pick. She is also the Democratic vice presidential nominee. Two years ago, Harris got national attention for her tough questioning of Brett Kavanaugh during his contentious confirmation hearings. But as NPR's Scott Detrow reports, there are already some signals that Harris might not be so eager to tangle with Trump's new nominee.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Kamala Harris was far away from Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
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KAMALA HARRIS: We will keep coming back because so goes Michigan, goes the rest of the country as far as we are concerned.
DETROW: Two years ago, Harris created some of the more newsworthy exchanges of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings.
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HARRIS: Can you think of any laws that give government the power to make decisions about the male body?
BRETT KAVANAUGH: I'm happy to answer a more specific question.
HARRIS: Male versus female...
DETROW: So it was notable that when asked whether they expect Harris to play an even bigger role in the hearings expected next month, many Senate Democrats were like Hawaii senator, Mazie Hirono - a little ambivalent.
MAZIE HIRONO: She's a little busy right now.
DETROW: The takeaway from Hirono and other Democrats on the Judiciary Committee - it's not a given that Harris will shift her focus away from the campaign trail and toward the hearing room.
HIRONO: There are going to be a lot of us playing the committee role. I just want Joe and Kamala to get elected. That should be their focus right now in my view. I'm pretty sure she shares my perspective on the next nominee.
DETROW: A Biden campaign official says Harris does plan to take part in the eventual hearing. But even though the open seat would further tilt the court to conservatives, the political calculations Harris faces now are much different than in 2018. Then, she was a newer face, thinking of a presidential run looking to win approval from Democratic voters. Now she's the party's vice presidential nominee, representing not just herself but Joe Biden and his possible presidential administration.
DAVID AXELROD: There'll be a lot of eyes on her and how she approaches this and - both tonally and substantively.
DETROW: David Axelrod was the top strategist on Barack Obama's campaign in 2008 and now works as a contributor to CNN. Axelrod says Harris and the Biden campaign face some challenging dynamics here, most of all, the fact that Republicans likely have the votes they need to approve their nominee. Axelrod says one approach Harris might take could be sticking to broader themes like whether the seat should be filled so quickly so close to an election rather than grilling the nominee about her personal views on, say, abortion.
AXELROD: I think the thing that makes this different is that she do it within the context of the strategy of the campaign because it's very clear that the focus of Biden is on the issue of health care and the Affordable Care Act.
DETROW: The Supreme Court is set to hear another case on Obamacare right after the election. The confirmation hearing will be a major news story. But as New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker points out, no matter what she focuses on that day, Harris has another big platform right now.
CORY BOOKER: I don't know if you can divide a person in that way. She is a United States senator who is a candidate for vice president. And she will bring all of her voice and spirit and, really, her brilliance to the arguments that we're making no matter what role she's in.
DETROW: One thing is clear. On paper, Harris is the most junior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. But no one inside or outside of the hearing room will view her that way when it's her turn to question President Trump's Court nominee.
Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington.