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Amy Klobuchar races to turn debate moment into campaign momentum

Sen. Amy Klobuchar has no time to mince words.

“I have a lot of really good proposals out there — and I show how I’m going to pay for them,” the Minnesota Democrat told a crowded room of voters here over the weekend, taking another not-so-subtle dig at one of her leading 2020 rivals. “I think we need to be really honest with people right now.”

It’s lost on no one, of course, she’s talking about Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

After making that point clear during the debate last week in Ohio — calling for a “reality check to Elizabeth” and dismissing some Warren plans as “pipe dreams” — Klobuchar is scrambling to turn her moment on stage into momentum on the campaign trail.

Klobuchar, who has so far qualified for all of the primary debates but continues to see single-digit polling numbers, is in danger of missing the November debate stage.

With less than a month to qualify, a fresh sense of urgency surrounded her candidacy as her green campaign bus rumbled across Iowa on a visit this past weekend. Her itinerary was shaped by a swath of counties President Donald Trump turned red in 2016 that President Barack Obama twice carried.

At every stop, whether shaking hands with one potential supporter at a time or addressing a room of a few hundred, Klobuchar made the case again and again: She can win in Trump country and Democrats can ill afford to choose a nominee who can’t.

In this unsettled stage of the race, she’s testing the appetite for whether hard-core party activists who dependably attend Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses are open to backing a candidate who promotes her progressive record even as she touts the number of Republicans — or former Republicans — who approach her to pledge their support.

“Who do you want heading that ticket? Someone who can really win in the Midwest,” Klobuchar told CNN in an interview aboard her chartered bus, emblazoned with the slogan “Amy for America” in giant letters. “I’m the only one with the track record of actually winning red congressional districts time and time again and suburban purple districts.”

The Minnesota senator carried so-called Trump counties — 42 of them, she proudly pointed out to her Iowa audiences, as she won a third Senate term last fall. She argues that her presidential candidacy could also build a broader coalition to help Democratic candidates win control of the Senate next year.

But in the short term, it’s an open question whether her pragmatic message can be a winning one in the crowded 2020 Democratic primary.

“She has a very refreshing, common sense way about her that is very appealing,” said Andy McKean, a longtime Iowa state legislator who left the Republican Party earlier this year in disgust. Now a Democrat, he endorsed Klobuchar, saying: “She’s very practical, but she’s very progressive.”

It’s that balance Klobuchar is working to navigate.

Her rising confidence, which was apparent on the debate stage last week in Ohio, clearly followed her at most every stop of her three-day Iowa visit. One voter after another conceded they took notice of her for the first time when she aggressively challenged Warren on the price tag of her health care plan.

Betsy Pilkington, a retired teacher from North English, Iowa, said she was so impressed by Klobuchar’s most recent debate performance that she went online and made a small contribution. It was the biggest fundraising boomlet of Klobuchar’s campaign, aides said, raising more than $1 million in the first 24 hours after the debate. (By comparison, Klobuchar raised a total $4.8 million from July to September.)

“For the first time, I thought she came across more forceful and she was a force to recon with,” Pilkington said in an interview after meeting Klobuchar at a coffee shop along her tour. “I liked what she had to say, that she was more centrist and she wasn’t afraid to go up against Elizabeth Warren.”

Pragmatic and progressive

Klobuchar and Warren, who are colleagues in the Senate and competitors on the campaign trail, illustrate the tensions coursing through the Democratic Party and the lingering uncertainty over what type of candidate is the most electable.

The root of their disagreement is over the price tag of a series of programs, including “Medicare for All” and free college. Klobuchar was among the Democrats who did not sign onto the sweeping legislation sponsored by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, which would eliminate private health insurance.

In the wake of persistent questioning of Warren on the debate stage from Klobuchar and others, the Massachusetts senator said Sunday for the first time that she is working on a plan to pay for Medicare for All and would reveal it in the coming weeks.

That development prompted this reply from Klobuchar: “I think if she had a good answer, we would have seen it by now. But I look forward to seeing it.”

Their candidacies are far from equal — Warren’s robust grassroots fundraising prowess and wild enthusiasm apparent at most every one of her campaign stops make that evident — but Klobuchar’s assertive questioning of Warren on the debate stage clearly found a receptive audience.

“How is college going to be free? How is health care going to be free? How are we going to close down all private health insurance?” said Susan Strodtbeck, a retired teacher who saw Klobuchar at a town hall meeting in Davenport. “I’m sorry. We can’t do that.”

When she asked Klobuchar about “all that free stuff,” the senator’s face came alive as she joked that the only free offerings her campaign had were the chocolate chip cookies at the back of the room.

While Klobuchar has offered a pragmatic progressive message since she entered the race in February, the decision to sharpen her argument against Warren and Sanders, another top-tier candidate, is a strategic one. Time is running out for her to break out of the crowded field, with a little more than 100 days remaining until the Iowa caucuses kick off the voting early next year.

After sipping a cup of hot coffee, Klobuchar settled back into her seat on the bus, and explained why she believes that her rivals aren’t leveling with voters.

“I’m not at all likening them to Donald Trump, who’s plainly lying all the time,” she said. “But I’m saying that I think this calls for a time when we build trust with people, not by promising everything for free. I know that’s appealing. I would love to have everything for free. You’d love to have everything for free, but I think people know that’s not going to happen.”

She dismissed the possibility of backlash from liberal Democrats to her sharp criticism of Warren and Sanders. She defends her progressive voting record, while making clear that the party needs to appeal to a wider audience of Americans eager to see Trump replaced in the White House.

“There are independents and moderate Republicans — maybe they didn’t vote last time, but they’re watching,” Klobuchar said. “So we better make sure that the message we’re sending out there is one that brings them in as well.”

As she posed for pictures with voters at a brewery in Waterloo, Jerry Rasmussen stood and watched from a distance. He’s a retired truck driver who said he’s fed up with the Trump presidency and learned about Klobuchar from a friend in neighboring Minnesota.

“He’s a Republican and says she does a great job for him up there, you know?” Rasmussen said. “I hope she can get stronger and pull ahead.”

CNN