In every stump speech, Amy Klobuchar uses a joke sequence that invariably gets chuckles and knowing nods from Iowa Democrats. She begins by saying that many caucus-goers believe that the best thing a presidential candidate can hear is, “You’re in my top three.” The three-term Minnesota senator gets an even bigger laugh when she recounts how she once successfully wooed a former mayor of Cedar Rapids who, when they first met, told her with absurd precision that she was only “78 percent of the way there.”
Then Klobuchar turns serious, as she did on a recent Friday morning in a small coffee shop crammed with avid listeners in Indianola, about 20 miles south of Des Moines. “We got to get a move on,” she said, asking her audience to commit to caucusing for her on February 3, “because we’re building a different kind of campaign. A grassroots campaign.”
“A lot of candidates have gotten out, and a few have gotten in,” she said, referring, in particular, to the surprise withdrawal of Kamala Harris and the sudden landing of Mike Bloomberg’s wallet, “but we keep moving.”
Such gentle pressure doesn’t always work. In Indianola, I spoke with Brenda Schumann, a retired elementary-school teacher from Des Moines, who had been knocking on doors for Harris since July. Wearing a gun-control button (“Moms Demand Action for Good Sense”), Schumann said, “After Kamala, I need a little time to regroup. I do want the most electable candidate.”
Schumann, of course, has a top-three list of her own: Klobuchar, Cory Booker, and Julián Castro.
Klobuchar will be the only one of those three underdog contenders on Thursday’s debate stage in Los Angeles. As she knows, strong performances in the last two debates have helped her build a bit of momentum in Iowa, where her support has ranged from 5 to 10 percent in recent polls.
Those numbers are easy to sniff at, but I feel compelled to point out that John Edwards (admittedly, a vastly different kind of Democrat) was at 5 percent in Iowa in early December 2003. Seven weeks later (the caucuses were in mid-January in 2004), Edwards finished a close second with 32 percent, behind the victorious John Kerry.
In the 40 years since I first came to Iowa for politics, no Democratic race has been as baffling as this one. But 2004 remains the closest parallel. Then, as now, there was a hated Republican incumbent in the White House and a sprawling field of Democratic contenders, none of whom could draw huge crowds to high-school gymnasiums across Iowa like, say, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama could.
Iowa political strategist Jeff Link, who is neutral in this year’s presidential race, also sees 2004 as a good analogy. “People are desperate to beat Trump,” he said, “and they can’t figure out who’s the best candidate to do that. In 2004, they figured out that the most electable candidate was John Kerry. But no one knows who’s the Kerry of 2020.”
Klobuchar makes no secret that she is competing against Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg in the moderate lane. In debates, she has gone after Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, critiquing their health care plans as utopian. As she put it during a luncheon town meeting in the back room of a restaurant in Chariton, “I don’t think we should kick 149 million people off their health insurance in four years. What we should do instead is to use a nonprofit public option and make that work.”
After Harris’s high-flying flameout, Klobuchar and Warren are the only serious candidates left who can fulfill the Democrats’ dream of breaking the glass ceiling and electing a woman president. In her stump speech, Klobuchar has yet to harness this argument, but it is implicit in her candidacy.
In fact, she goes out of her way to resist making the same mistake Hillary Clinton did three years ago: leaning too far into the let’s-make-history argument. At the Indianola town meeting I attended, she told a story from her first Senate campaign in 2006. Facing a room of tough, burly steelworkers in northern Minnesota, her pitch, which she said won them over, went something like this: “I’m not running as a proxy woman candidate. I’m running on my record. Because if I were running as a woman candidate, I wouldn’t win because half the voters are men.”
More than most of her Democratic rivals, even Biden, Klobuchar makes an explicit case for electability. In every speech, she talks about how Democrats need to win big in 2020. As she puts it, “I don’t want to eke out a victory at four in the morning.”
As the shortest candidate in the race (she proudly announces that at five-foot-four she is the same height as James Madison), Klobuchar revels in explaining how she would measure up to Donald Trump.
Part of it, she said in Indianola, is to ignore his publicity-hound stunts, such as “going over to see Kim Jong Un and bringing a hot dish to the dictator next door.”
Then she added a point that is both central and unique to her candidacy. “Something you might not expect,” she said, “is that you have to use humor because he’s so absurd. And he uses humor all the time—you just don’t think it’s funny. If you don’t respond in any way, you’re in trouble.”
As a political reporter, there is always a danger in straying too far from the herd. Even eight decades later, I feel for those reporters who, in 1936, seriously believed that Alf Landon had a chance against Franklin Roosevelt right up until the moment when he won just eight electoral votes. So I don’t want to go too far in hyping Klobuchar’s odds of ending up close to the top in Iowa. But with breaks, momentum, and continued strong debate performances, she could finish ahead of Biden in the caucuses.
Growing up in the 1960s, Klobuchar remembers the children’s classic, The Little Engine That Could. As she told me during the on-the-record portion of a recent interview in Cedar Rapids, “My mom was first a kindergarten teacher and then [taught] second grade. So she had every kids’ book. And that was one of them. I did like that story.”
That memory provoked Klobuchar to add, “I’ve always known … that I would … just keep working hard as long as I believe[d] in what I was doing, which I do. And I always thought that we would have a winding and not an easy journey.”
All that was missing was for Klobuchar to repeat the mantra of the tiny engine as it pulled freight cars loaded with toys over the steep mountain, “I think I can. I think I can.”