NEW YORK -- As Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris took to the debate stage on Wednesday night, Indian Americans were taking their seats in front of webcams to cheer on a woman they consider one of their own.
"Regardless of which side you fall on the political spectrum, the Indian American community, the South Asian community, definitely tuned into this debate tonight," said Neha Dewan, a New Yorker who watched with 30 others on a Zoom party organized by groups called the Joyful Warriors for Kamala Harris and South Asians for Biden.
"How often do you see somebody who looks like yourself on a major platform in this way?"
Born to a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, Harris is the first-ever American of Indian descent to be the vice presidential candidate of a major party. "That's why I feel you will definitely see many, many more folks from our community tuning in because there is already somebody that we can identify with putting politics aside on that stage," said Dewan, who works for a law firm.
She was glued to the TV with her husband after putting their 7-year-old daughter to bed. At one point during the debate, Dewan said of Harris, "She is calling Pence's bluff with just her expressions alone."
Indian Americans are the most Democratic-leaning community among Asian Americans, according to a report published in September by FiveThirtyEight, a website that analyzes statistical trends. However, activist groups such as the Republican Hindu Coalition made inroads in 2016 by highlighting similarities between then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Zoom event Dewan attended was one of numerous virtual watch parties arranged by multiple Indian American and South Asian groups. To wish Harris good luck, some posted images of cracked coconuts or the Sanskrit word tathastu, which is akin to "amen" and literally means "so be it." Debate night snacks ranged from street food to popcorn to Indian sweets like gulab jamun -- deep-fried dough balls in a sugar-water sauce.
During the debate, Harris invoked her immigrant mother, Shyamala Gopalan, who died in 2009. "The fact that I am sitting here will make her proud," Harris said from behind a Plexiglas divider separating her from Pence.
Suresh Kumar, a professor of entrepreneurship at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, said Harris' candidacy marks a larger turning point for the Democratic Party.
Joe Biden "has made a very clear statement that the future Democratic Party belongs to minority communities by selecting Harris," said Kumar, who watched the proceedings live on Facebook with the 5,500-member group Indian Americans for Biden-Harris.
"It shows that the last glass ceiling has been broken. It reinforces him as a leader who is willing to accept others even if they are critical of him."
As the 90-minute debate went on, some media pundits felt Harris was playing it too safe -- a departure from her sharp questioning of President Trump's nominees in Senate committee hearings. She did, however, fire back when Pence interrupted her. Her retort, "Mr. Vice President, I'm speaking," was soon trending on Twitter.
At the end of the night, Kumar came away impressed.
"Kamala did a masterful job despite Pence evading questions repeatedly and running over time on every question," he said. "She had to walk a fine line of bringing up all the shortcomings of the Trump [administration] without offending a certain section of the population," Kumar said.
He added that his groups on the WhatsApp messaging app buzzed with "fire" emojis every time Harris turned up the heat on her rival.
Normally, vice presidential debates attract less attention than the presidential ones. But this year both Harris and Pence are being judged as potential presidents. Come January, either will be serving alongside the oldest leader to be inaugurated in U.S. history. Biden turns 78 in November, while Trump is 74.
In Houston, solar energy executive Karthik Soora dressed up his dog, Bhoomi (meaning Earth), in vote-for-Biden paraphernalia ahead of the debate. He, too, was pleased with Harris' performance. "Pence was tonally different in comparison to Trump but he rattled [off] the same flawed policies," Soora said afterward.
Soora, who was born in the Texas city, said he believes the Trump-Pence administration has not be held accountable for what he considers their failure on the coronavirus.
"I think there are a lot of leaders who like to cause division, but if there is one thing we have learned from problems like climate change and COVID, it's that we can only tackle these issues by coming together," he said. "It's really corny but I think Kamala is really good at understanding how to bridge different cultures."
Many debate watchers echoed that Harris was convincing and stood her ground when she needed to.
"She handled the questions with poise and grace, especially when she was interrupted," Dewan said. "She made a very compelling case about the failures of the Trump administration and why the Biden-Harris ticket is the right choice for America."