“This person deserves a ticket out of Iowa, to be able to go forward, and I am asking you to do that for me.”
It was a blunt moment here in Des Moines from a senator already known for her candor. And it highlights two things: how the requirement that she be in Washington, DC, six days out of the week for the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump has fettered her Iowa plans, and how critical the Hawkeye State is to her overall success in the Democratic primary.
Klobuchar needs a good showing in Iowa more than almost any candidate in the 2020 field — her poll numbers outside of the state trail her competitors and she has shown little ability to win over black and Latino voters, who will be critical in contests in Nevada, South Carolina and other contests. And thus the implications of not being in the state during the impeachment trial could be far more damaging for her than Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, two senators with more fulsome support in the state and across the country.
A sleep-starved Klobuchar, after spending most of her week in Washington, arrived in Iowa on Saturday afternoon and wasted no time, talking with voters who she hopes will help her overperform in Iowa.
“Did I ever think those last two weeks I wouldn’t really be able to be here on the road?” she asked rhetorically as her bus rolled from the Muscatine airport to her next event. “You know, you read about your opponents out there doing what you want to be doing.”
But when those thoughts creep into her head, she says she tries to “step back” and remember the “constitutional duty” she is upholding in the Senate.
“People are going to get it,” she said optimistically during an interview with CNN on her bus. “I have a heartfelt plea that I’m making to my supporters who are pretty vigorously there.”
The senator has tried to stay relevant by becoming a fixture on both local and cable television during the impeachment trial, often running off the Senate floor and directly to a camera. The senator has also held one tele-town hall, with Klobuchar pushing her message to Iowans who may still be considering her.
But while those efforts are helpful, Klobuchar acknowledged they are not substitute for being on the ground.
“I never thought I wasn’t going to be able to be back here all next week, never in my wildest dreams,” Klobuchar said on Sunday. “But that is what my life is, and I am doing the right thing.”
A slew of statewide polls have her in the fifth position in the state, behind former Vice President Joe Biden, Sanders, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Warren. A recent New York Times/Siena College poll found her at 8% in the state, well behind the other four candidates.
Klobuchar’s advisers and supporters say the senator needs to surpass expectations on caucus night and most top Iowa Democrats take that to mean breaking into the top four. The senator has pledged she will take her campaign to New Hampshire no matter what, as she has already qualified for the next debate in the state, but operatives and analysts note that recovering from a disappointing finish in Iowa, a state that is notably similar to the senator’s home, could be ruinous.
Jumping into the top four is tall task for the Minnesota senator and Klobuchar is honest when asked about where she needs to finish on caucus night.
“We are now in the top five firmly and clearly I want to be in that group, and then the chips will fall where they may,” Klobuchar told CNN. “I’m always a realist and the fact that I can’t be here it doesn’t make it easy, but we are doing well. And, again, there’s many tickets out of Iowa.”
Two days of campaigning in two weeks
Klobuchar was greeted by sizable crowds during her mad dash across Iowa on Saturday and Sunday. But hanging over all of it was a reality that her focus on Iowa plan has been upended.
“I’ve got to put what I thought was going to be two weeks of campaigning into about two days,” she said in Bettendorf.
The senator’s message to Iowans this weekend was far more focused on Trump than other Democrats. The senator excoriated the President for everything from getting millions from his father to start his business empire to being, in her view, a whiner.
Still, Klobuchar also stepped up the pointed critiques of her opponents, especially Sanders, who is surging in Iowa and offers a dramatically different vision than the moderate senator.
“My whole argument is that I will make our tent bigger, our coalition wider and my coattails longer,” she told CNN on Sunday, making the argument that she — unlike Sanders — will help Democrats in competitive House and Senate races. “That is what I’ve proven. I actually have the receipts. I do not come from a state that’s as blue as Vermont.”
She added: “I am the only one up there that’s in Congress actually in the field that has passed over 100 bills, as the lead Democrat, and that’s different than Senator Sanders.”
Klobuchar’s steady growth in Iowa has come, according to Democratic operatives across the state, from growing support along among caucusgoers from along Iowa’s border with Minnesota, especially rural communities that mirror many of the same places the senator represents in the neighboring state.
“Klobuchar has a record and history on what she has been able to do in Minnesota, which is extensive, and I think a lot of rural folks down here understand that and even if they might be more progressive than Klobuchar, they can relate with what she has been able to do,” said JD Scholten, the Democratic congressional candidate in Iowa’s 4th Congressional district who hasn’t endorsed anyone ahead of the caucus. “Midwesterners feel a little bit more comfortable with other Midwesterners.”
One reason for this success is that Klobuchar made it a point, before the Senate trial began, to visit every one of Iowa’s 99 counties, a feat called the “Full Grassley,” after the state’s senior Republican senator, Chuck Grassley. Even though some of those events meant simply stopping in a county and inviting a few Iowans onto the bus in a gas station parking lot, Klobuchar has used the accomplishment to burnish her ability to win back voters who gravitated toward Trump four years ago.
“She is that genuine, authentic person who can relate to what keeps people up in communities where I live,” said Pam Johnson, a farmer from rural Floyd County, Iowa, and the former head of the National Corn Growers Association. “She gets (rural voters) and they get her, and I just seem them being really comfortable with her as a candidate.”
There are some Iowans, however, who question the depth of support Klobuchar enjoys in the state, especially in cities like Des Moines.
“I would love to see Amy Klobuchar break in the top four, but I haven’t seen the indications of it yet,” said Sean Bagniewski, the chair of the Polk County Democratic Party. “Her endorsements are some of the best, but her polls aren’t moving much, and time is running out to catch up.”
But high-profile Iowans like Dave Nagle, a former representative from Cedar Falls, is more upbeat about the senator’s chances.
“I think she’s right where she should be,” Nagle told CNN. “I think she’s got great potential. I’m not diminishing the other candidates because I don’t endorse, they all have their strengths, but I sense that if anybody’s had any movement here, is gaining momentum as we close out, she would be one of the two that I would see.”