When to Peak? Amy Klobuchar Has Given It Some Thought

HENNIKER, N.H. — For months, Senator Amy Klobuchar has been the Democratic presidential candidate turning down the music at the party.

As Senator Elizabeth Warren promised “big, structural change,” and Senator Bernie Sanders offered his brand of “political revolution,” Ms. Klobuchar was steadily reminding voters of the factors that have long mattered in national politics, at least before the election of a certain current president: expense, experience and electability.

Now, as the moderate wing of the party reasserts itself in the primary campaign, her message of plain-spoken politics is drawing greater attention.

“What was happening early on was that there was this belief that only those guys had bold ideas,” Ms. Klobuchar, of Minnesota, said in an interview, as she campaigned across New Hampshire this weekend. “I have plans, too. I have bold plans, too. And no one has a monopoly on good ideas.”

As her rivals falter, Ms. Klobuchar has outlasted some national figures, like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and former Representative Beto O’Rourke, and she is one of just six candidates, so far, to have qualified for the next debate in December. Enough money has flowed in for her to expand her operation; she has doubled her offices in Iowa and her staff in New Hampshire at a time when many of her rivals are worried about contracting. After months stuck toward the bottom of the polls, she has earned around 5 percent in several recent surveys of early-voting states, as voters give her a second look.

And in perhaps the highest mark of progress yet, her strong performance in last week’s debate inspired a spoof on “Saturday Night Live,” albeit one largely focused on her quivering bangs. (Ms. Klobuchar said she was standing under an air vent during the debate and hadn’t used enough hair spray.)

Hoping to ride a wave of post-debate attention, Ms. Klobuchar planned to blaze through New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina this week, stopping briefly in Des Moines for a Thanksgiving Day celebration at the home of her campaign’s state chairwoman.

“I’m hearing more talk about Amy. It’s picked up in the last couple weeks,” said Laurie McCray, the Democratic Party chairwoman in Portsmouth, N.H. “People have heard from the other candidates and they’re still looking.”

The fresh interest comes as Democratic leaders express vocal concerns about whether sweeping progressive policies, like Medicare for all, could hurt the party in key battleground states. As some center-left voters seek an alternative to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., and as former Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York have entered the race, the competition to emerge as the party’s moderate standard-bearer has intensified.

Ms. Klobuchar is in the hunt, though far from its leader. Her poll numbers in the early states have doubled, but her single-digit support leaves her solidly in the race’s second tier. She has very little backing from black and Latino voters, a significant portion of the party’s base. At the same time, it’s unclear whether she can pull enough white voters away from Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., the other Midwestern moderate in the race and the current poll-leader in Iowa.

While Ms. Klobuchar’s campaign says it raised $1 million in small-dollar donations in the 24 hours after last week’s debate, enabling her to hire staff in South Carolina and Nevada, her bank account is dwarfed by her rivals’. As of this month, she had $3.7 million in cash on hand, putting her eighth in the field, and more than $20 million behind Mr. Buttigieg.

But supporters of Ms. Klobuchar believe Mr. Buttigieg may have peaked too early. They argue her energy is coming at just the right time, long enough before the Iowa caucuses to allow Ms. Klobuchar to expand her operation but not so early that their momentum is gone by early February, when caucusing and voting begins. Aides are particularly cheered by their internal data showing Ms. Klobuchar as a second or third choice for many expected to caucus in Iowa.

They argue that even a fifth-place finish there could be enough to keep Ms. Klobuchar in the contest, given the size of the field.

“Our momentum says we’re doing pretty damn well in Iowa,” said her state party chairwoman Andy McGuire, who is hosting Ms. Klobuchar, her husband and daughter for Thanksgiving at her home on Thursday. “She’ll at least be in the top five. I think she could be in the top three and that would be wonderful.”

For some voters, going all the way with Amy K. — the slogan for her first election, in fourth grade, and a laugh line in her stump speech — has been a process of elimination, as they search for a candidate they believe best embodies the most prized of all virtues in the primary race: electability.

As he waited for Ms. Klobuchar to address a small crowd on a rainy Friday afternoon, Stan Lloyd, 68, ticked off the qualities that have kept Ms. Klobuchar on his list of potential candidates to support.

She’s a Midwestern woman from a liberal state, allowing her to argue that she can both win in a battleground region and champion progressive values. She touts her long legislative record in the Senate, casting herself as a can-do, results-driven legislator. And, he noted, she’s only 59.

“I’m not interested in another old white man like Bloomberg. I’m sad about Joe. I saw him at a town hall yesterday and it was painful,” said Mr. Lloyd, a retired guidance counselor from Loudon, N.H. “I’ve eliminated a few candidates in my mind. Amy, she’s still in the running.”

Ms. Klobuchar attributes her new momentum to frugality, consistency and a move by voters toward more moderate candidates. She points to her fluency in policy issues and her early and vocal opposition to proposals like free college and Medicare for all.

But the core of her argument remains her contention that she is the most equipped to defeat President Trump, as a Midwestern senator who won counties that supported him. On the campaign trail, she cites recent Democratic victories in Kentucky and Louisiana as signs that the party can win in red states with the right message — and messenger.

As she traveled through New Hampshire, Ms. Klobuchar hoped to tap into the sense of anxiety many Democrats still feel about their 2016 loss, casting herself as the solution to their fears.

“My message to you right here from the start is very profound, we can’t screw this up,” she said. “We cannot eke by with a victory in one state, even if it’s New Hampshire. We have to win big and we have to win across the country.”

Along with questioning the liberal policies put forward by Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders, Ms. Klobuchar has increasingly begun contrasting herself with the more moderate candidates in the race. During the debate, she went after Mr. Buttigieg’s limited résumé, arguing that women who run for office are held to a higher standard.

While Ms. Klobuchar said she doesn’t want to be seen as “harping” on sexism in politics or “defined” by her gender, she worries that some voters don’t believe a woman can beat Mr. Trump.

“To make the case, you really have to bring people somewhere else in their minds,” she said. “Believe it or not, a woman is the one that can get these suburban and rural voters away from Donald Trump.”

She criticized Mr. Buttigieg again on Friday evening, mentioning a tweet he sent in 2018 saying he backed single-payer health care.

“Now he’s trying to get around it,” she told an audience in Manchester, N.H. “O.K. But I think people are really looking for someone who is true to what they are from the beginning.”

And she took on the nascent candidacy of Mr. Bloomberg and his plans to spend more than $30 million on a single week of television ads, citing her mother, an elementary school teacher, and her father, a newspaperman, as she cast herself as “the opposite of some of these wealthy people running.”

In private conversations, at least one second-tier candidate admitted to being mystified by Ms. Klobuchar’s success, puzzled by her fund-raising numbers and ability to capture attention. In public speeches, some of her rivals urge voters to vote with their hearts, rather than try to predict who can win over swing voters.

That’s an argument that fails to convince even some liberal voters, who say the party must prioritize perceived electoral strength over policy positions.

After hearing Ms. Klobuchar speak, Susan and Roger Shamel, retirees and climate activists, said they were willing to put ideology aside for this election cycle. Four years after supporting Mr. Sanders, they lined up to take a selfie with Ms. Klobuchar.

“Being from the Midwest, and I have a lot of friends and family there, I’m hearing from these people, Warren and Bernie can’t win there,” said Ms. Shamel, who is considering supporting Ms. Klobuchar.

Her husband agreed: “We’ve got to beat Trump no matter what.”

Reid J. Epstein contributed reporting from Washington.

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