Amy Klobuchar began her Iowa campaign nearly a year ago in Mason City, just south of the Minnesota border. And on Sunday afternoon, the Minnesota senator returned to Mason City with a sense of fitting finality as she told a crowd of 250 Democrats, “I didn’t think this would be my last big speech ... but I’m going back to Washington this evening for the end of the trial.”
Mason City, the home of Broadway composer Meredith Willson, was the model for River City, the setting for Willson’s 1957 musical, The Music Man. Willson also wrote The Unsinkable Molly Brown, whose theme song, “I Ain’t Down Yet,” could also serve as Klobuchar’s.
Underestimated from the beginning, Klobuchar is the Great Survivor of this Democratic presidential race. Three of her flashier Capitol Hill colleagues—Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand—are all back to being full-time senators.
But as the five-foot-four Klobuchar said proudly at a Cedar Rapids rally on Sunday, “I have been doing this the hard way, and I have been punching way above my weight.” Moments later, she added, “Here I am, nearly a year later, one of the top five candidates in this race. And I have done it with a lot less money and a lot less name identification than many of my opponents.”
After rising to double digits in most Iowa polls and attracting an enthusiastic crowd of more than 400 in Cedar Rapids on Sunday, Klobuchar may demonstrate, more than any of her colleagues, the importance of peaking at just the right moment.
Joe Biden’s supporters are so nervous these days that some are thinking about jumping ship. (Over the weekend, John Kerryenergetically was overheard talking loudly on a cell phone in a Des Moines hotel restaurant about stepping into the presidential race to stop Bernie Sanders.) And there are hints that Pete Buttigieg—the out-of-nowhere challenger who was a press favorite for much of last year—may now be on a slow downward arc reminiscent of Howard Dean’s in 2004.
Like both Biden and Buttigieg, Klobuchar makes a persuasive case that she could win next November’s general election. Stressing her Midwestern roots and her big-tent approach to winning elections, Klobuchar harps on the need “to build a beautiful blue wall around these Democratic votes and make Donald Trump pay for it.” It’s threaded through almost every speech she gives.
But no Democrat has potentially suffered more from impeachment. Klobuchar needs grassroots energy—the kind that is powered by intense personal campaigning—to upend expectations and vault her into contention on caucus night. As she told me in an interview on Sunday in Mason City, “One of the weird things about this week was that we thought we’d be here the whole time.... You have the adrenaline of being on the campaign, and then you’re sitting, being a juror, where literally you can’t speak or move.”
Never complaining about her Senate responsibilities or publicly indulging in might-have-beens, Klobuchar did concede, “We have this momentum going, and you want to be part of that momentum.” Then she added, with a dollop of optimism, “Hopefully people will understand.”
Earlier in the day, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz had described Klobuchar as an “eternal optimist,” as he introduced her in Mason City. Afterward, I asked Walz to explain this characterization. “She’s very strategic. She grinds it out,” he said. “I think it’s that ability to say, ‘Tomorrow’s another day.’ That’s the type of perseverance to go along with [the] optimism that we need in a president.”
There are few endeavors, aside from sports, that are conducted as nakedly in public as running for president. And too often the political media juggernaut, which only champions winners, fails to appreciate the perseverance of serious candidates who keep hoping and dreaming though the road ahead seems steep.
Whatever the results from the caucuses (and anyone who dares predict the outcome probably has not ventured closer to Iowa than a TV greenroom in northwest Washington), Klobuchar is determined to carry on through the New Hampshire primary. She has won a flurry of newspaper endorsements: The New York Times backed her along with Elizabeth Warren; the New Hampshire Union Leader and other influential papers in New Hampshire have endorsed her, as well.
In some ways, New Hampshire could be even friendlier territory than Iowa for a beat-Trump-at-all-costs moderate like Klobuchar, since independents can vote in its Democratic primary. But, as countless wounded candidates have learned over the years, the rituals of politics can be cruel to anyone whose momentum seems to stall in Iowa or who fails to surprise the media with a stronger-than-expected finish.
And newspaper endorsements can carry you only so far. Back in 1988, former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt (who would later become Bill Clinton’s secretary of the Interior) was the darling of newspaper editorial writers. He finished fifth in Iowa and limped home sixth in New Hampshire. As he hoisted the white flag, Babbitt joked that most political reporters had been so flattering that they must have been part of “a deliberate conspiracy to destroy my candidacy by making me into kind of a house pet.”
Of course, the traditional rules may not apply in these Iowa caucuses. The passion to dump Trump has shifted the political calculus for many voters there, making this perhaps the most unusual caucus since Jimmy Carter put the opening-gun event on the political map in 1976.
Take Janet Schroeder, a retired Iowa Democrat who once worked for the state department of human services. Waiting for Klobuchar to speak in Cedar Rapids, Schroeder told me, “I have no idea who I’m caucusing for. I’d like to take all of them and roll them into one. But I’m not really confused as much as I just want a candidate who can win.”
When I wondered whether her indecision would prompt her to stay home, she laughed. “I can’t,” she said. “I’m the secretary of the caucus. I have to be there to report the results. I’ll probably decide when I get there.”
For those Democrats who want a winner, rather than the ones who are making an ideological choice, Klobuchar remains an intriguing figure. In her third term in the Senate, she has the Washington experience Buttigieg lacks—as well as an energy and a wry sense of humor that sets her apart from Biden.
It may not be enough to vault her as high as third place on caucus night. But the history of the last year is littered with political experts who sold Klobuchar short in their fixation with, say, Kamala Harris. In the end, there is a lot to be said for perseverance.