Amid a broader conversation about criminal justice reform between the California senator and former Vice President Joe Biden, the moderators turned to the Hawaii congresswoman. And she unloaded:
"Senator Harris says she's proud of her record as a prosecutor and that she'll be a prosecutor president.
"But I'm deeply concerned about this record. There are too many examples to cite but she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana.
"She blocked evidence -- she blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so. She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California."
It was, without question, a moment for Gabbard, who has been running well off the main pack in the race to date. She was forceful, direct and unapologetic. And she clearly knocked Harris on her heels.
Worse than that -- for Harris -- is the fact that it became crystal clear in the aftermath of the debate that Gabbard had gotten under her skin. In a post-debate interview, CNN's Anderson Cooper asked Harris about the moment with Gabbard.
"This is going to sound immodest, but obviously I'm a top-tier candidate and so I did expect that I'd be on the stage and take some hits tonight," Harris said. "When people are at 0 or 1% or whatever she might be at, so I did expect to take some hits tonight."
First of all, if you are running for president and you hear the words, "This is going to sound immodest" come out of your mouth, it may be best to recalibrate what you are going to say.
Second, what Harris is actually saying is, basically, this: The dork took a shot at the most popular kid in school. Big whoop.
That is not a good look. For any candidate. Ever. (And, yes, politics is a LOT like high school.)
Now, in Harris' defense -- somewhat -- she did go beyond simply saying that she couldn't be bothered to care about Gabbard because the Hawaii congresswoman isn't polling as highly as she is. Harris also noted Gabbard's very controversial decision to meet with Bashar al-Assad, calling her an "apologist" for the Syrian dictator.
But what Harris started her answer on Gabbard with was the she-is-so-beneath-me-I-can't-even-bring-myself-to-take-her-seriously riff. Which, for a candidate as naturally gifted and experienced as Harris, is a clear mistake. And a mistake that appeared born of the simple fact that Gabbard pissed her off and, in the immediate aftermath of the debate, she was still fuming.
And the bottom line is that there are aspects of Harris' record as attorney general that are a major weakness for her candidacy. As a top-tier candidate, she *has* to expect to be hit on it. Who it came from is immaterial -- so the fact that she responded by dismissing Gabbard's poll numbers is telling.
This incident isn't going to do any real damage to Harris. She's right that she is a top-tier candidate and Gabbard, well, isn't -- at least not yet. But Harris' inability to keep her cool is something to keep an eye on. This isn't the only time she's going to be challenged on her record in the coming months.