In Iowa, Amy Klobuchar Gets a Second Look After Debate

In Iowa, Amy Klobuchar Gets a Second Look After Debate

Mired in the polling doldrums, the Minnesota senator drew crowds and new donors after attacking Elizabeth Warren for a “pipe dream.”


CreditCreditJordan Gale for The New York Times

MASON CITY, Iowa — Before last week, Beth Kundel Vogel was undecided when it came to the Democratic presidential hopefuls.

But in the debate on Tuesday, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota impressed her by calling out Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts for offering voters a “pipe dream” rather than a plan to pay for universal health care.

And on Friday, Ms. Kundel Vogel heard Ms. Klobuchar speak passionately in Davenport, Iowa, about one way of thinking about the 2020 race: the need to win support beyond the party base. “We have to remember that nearly 10 percent of Trump voters voted for Barack Obama,” Ms. Klobuchar said. “It’s our job to bring them in.”

“Seeing her in person just closed the deal for me,” said Ms. Kundel Vogel, 47, a human resources manager. “She understands what it’s going to take to win, which is to win over independents and former Trump voters.”

Riding a post-debate wave of attention, Ms. Klobuchar blitzed New Hampshire and Iowa last week, attracting new supporters and donors in those two states with early nominating contests. After months stuck in the polling doldrums, Ms. Klobuchar is getting a second look. But she faces several challenges, among them that she is arguing how to win general election swing states but has yet to show how she would win the nomination first.

The renewed interest comes as the Democratic field undergoes something of a shake-up. Ms. Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont are each jostling to consolidate the left wing, while the two Midwest moderates in the race, Ms. Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., are trying to break into the top tier of candidates after both enjoyed strong debate performances. Mr. Buttigieg is well ahead of Ms. Klobuchar in recent Iowa polls, adding to the pressure on her candidacy.

The competitive hunger on the campaign trail reflects a new urgency especially among moderate candidates and voters seeking an alternative to the ascendant Ms. Warren. Some donors and supporters of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. suddenly seem up for grabs.

In an interview on Saturday, Ms. Klobuchar drew an even sharper bead on Ms. Warren, comparing her avoidance of how to pay for “Medicare for all” with Mr. Trump’s habitual shirking of the truth.

“You’ve got a president that lies and doesn’t tell the truth, and I think it puts it on us to say, hey, there’s a different kind of president here where we’re going to be honest with you, look you in the eye, tell you the truth,” Ms. Klobuchar said. (Ms. Warren announced on Sunday that she would release a plan to finance her “Medicare for all” plan in the coming weeks.)

For Ms. Klobuchar, the stakes couldn’t be higher. She has yet to qualify for the next debate in November. She has hit 3 percent support in only two qualifying polls, including one of Iowa voters released Monday morning; she needs to reach that mark in two more national or early state polls.

She is counting on a debate surge to make the cut.

“We are very hopeful that it will; we have a whole month to get it done,” Ms. Klobuchar said on her campaign bus as it headed to Waterloo, Iowa, on Day 2 of a three-day swing.

She packed the rooms where she appeared with 150 to 200 voters, who applauded warmly, even wildly at times, including when she said, “We have a huge amount of momentum coming out of that debate.”

But as a reality check in a state where Ms. Klobuchar drew only 3 percent in the latest Des Moines Register poll, Ms. Warren attracted more than 1,000 at an appearance on Sunday night in Des Moines.

The Klobuchar campaign says it had its best 36 hours of fund-raising following Tuesday’s CNN/New York Times debate, pulling in $1.5 million in small-dollar donations. The money paid for a campaign bus wrapped in green with “Amy” in huge letters, and for a five-figure digital ad campaign in Iowa. (She began her first TV ad here in early October.) Still, her cash on hand is tight: As of this month, she had $3.7 million, putting her eighth in the field.

She told Iowans that “many, many, many, many times” the ultimate nominee was not the candidate leading in polls at this point, and she offered examples: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama.

On Friday, more Iowans filled in cards at her events committing to caucus for Ms. Klobuchar than any day of her candidacy.

Still, it is far from certain that post-debate momentum alone will make her a viable candidate. If she fails to make the next debates, she said, she will run at least through the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3. When asked how high a finish she would need to continue, she offered only a tight-lipped chuckle.

She did not hint at any strategy shift to create a breakthrough. She believes her best argument to be the nominee is that she is the most electable, as a heartland senator with proven appeal to swing voters, as shown in her re-election to a third term in 2018 when she carried Minnesota regions that Mr. Trump had won by double digits.

Two voters who committed on Saturday to caucus for Ms. Klobuchar, Tom and Dorinda Pounds, had watched earlier debates torn among her, Mr. Buttigieg and Mr. Biden.

“This debate, she finally got a chance to talk, and the way she handled herself really made a big difference,” Mr. Pounds, a retired county administrator, said at a Klobuchar appearance in Waterloo.

During the debate, in addition to calling out Ms. Warren, Ms. Klobuchar also attacked Mr. Trump more aggressively than Mr. Biden did. Ms. Klobuchar’s newfound readiness to swing a saber appealed to many who came out to hear her.

“With each candidate, I’m thinking how are they going to be on the debate stage against Trump, and I think she will handle herself well,” said Becky Langdon, a freelance writer in Davenport, who is on the fence about who to support. “She showed some passion and wanting to fight for it.”

Ms. Klobuchar was eager over the weekend to contrast herself with Mr. Buttigieg, who has a far bigger campaign war chest and more committed supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire.

“I am the one who has won statewide,” she said, referring to Mr. Buttigieg’s defeat in a 2010 race for Indiana treasurer.

On Sunday in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Ms. Klobuchar aimed a poison dart at Mr. Buttigieg over a 2018 tweet of his in support of a “Medicare for all” bill.

Mr. Buttigieg had just told the host Jake Tapper on the same broadcast that he later gave up backing “Medicare for all” after politicians concluded that it meant eliminating all private insurance.

Ms. Klobuchar was unrelenting. “The bill has been very clear from the beginning,” she said. “On page eight it says it will dismantle our current insurance system. It says 149 million people will be kicked off their current insurance.”

On the stump, Ms. Klobuchar, 59, presents herself as the same hard-working, results-driven politician as she was when she won her first election in fourth grade, with the now-discarded slogan “All the way with Amy K.”

She name-checks Republicans she teamed up with on more than 100 bills that passed the Senate. She emphasizes her priorities of strengthening election security, doubling Pell Grants for college students (but not free college for all) and lowering medical costs through a public option.

All her plans include proposals to pay for them, she notes, a point of pride that reflects a fiscal responsibility that she acquired from her family.

“I don’t come from money,” Ms. Klobuchar tells voters, recalling her mother who taught second grade until she was 70 and her newspaperman father who battled alcoholism.

While the Democratic base is fired up, Ms. Klobuchar argues that the 2020 nominee must carry the battleground states of the Midwest that voted for Mr. Trump.

In Waterloo, speaking at a brew pub, she surmised there were people in the crowd who voted for Mr. Trump.

“It’s important for us as a party to not shut everyone out, to bring them with us, to bring back some of those conservative Democrats who voted for him or stayed home,” she said. “To bring back some of our base, our liberal Democrats who were disenchanted.”

A voter named Bob, whose written question was read out to Ms. Klobuchar, put his finger on a core dilemma for a candidate who is running on a message about winning the heartland.

“We need a moderate candidate to beat Trump,” Bob asked. “How will you get through the primary?”

Ms. Klobuchar answered that she considers herself “a proven progressive,” citing her liberal views on abortion, immigration and the environment.

But rather than answering Bob in depth, she pivoted to talk about the need for a civil tone in politics.

Back on her campaign bus, she made the case more forcefully that someone with a profile like herself — rather than Ms. Warren or Mr. Sanders — is best positioned to win 2020 swing states. She cited the example of the 2018 midterms, when Democrats flipped governorships in Wisconsin and Michigan and gained a House majority by appealing to independents and disaffected Republicans in the suburbs.

“I just keep going back to 2018 because I have the facts on my side,” she said. “Everyone united behind the candidate, but tell me in those swing House districts, how many of them supported ‘Medicare for all’?”

Trip Gabriel is a national correspondent. He covered the past two presidential campaigns and has served as the Mid-Atlantic bureau chief and a national education reporter. He formerly edited the Styles sections. He joined The Times in 1994. @tripgabriel Facebook

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