DAVENPORT, Iowa >> Several days removed from a marathon Democratic presidential debate, Amy Klobuchar was still feeling an afterglow. On the debate stage, the Minnesota senator repeatedly hit Elizabeth Warren for failing to level with voters about how she would pay for her ambitious policy proposals, exposing a vulnerability in her progressive rival and earning much needed attention for herself in a crowded primary field.
“It was really important to make the case that there are other ways to do things, and it doesn’t mean you’re not fighting” for people, Klobuchar said as her campaign bus sped past cornfields in eastern Iowa.
If there’s a place where Klobuchar can build momentum from the debate, it’s here in Iowa, where her Midwestern roots and pragmatic approach to politics could resonate in the nation’s first caucus state. She has more than 50 staffers on the ground in Iowa and a familiarity with local issues as a senator from a neighboring state.
But she found that attention can be fleeting. Her bus tour was a chance to leverage her debate performance and attract more media notice. But Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who was also in Iowa and earned headlines after feuding with Hillary Clinton, took some of the spotlight away from Klobuchar during her bus tour.
“Is she here? Oh,” Klobuchar said of Gabbard, visibly chagrined that the spotlight might shift away from her Iowa tour.
Klobuchar is polling near the bottom of the pack and has struggled to raise money. She spent more than she raised during the third quarter, and while she’s launched a television ad in Iowa, it’s only airing in two media markets. And she has yet to qualify for the November debate.
Still, her debate performance gave her a boost: She raised $1.5 million in the 36 hours following the debate. And post-debate, she launched a frenzied week of campaigning to try to turn that bump into lasting momentum, hitting 10 counties over two days in New Hampshire and 12 over three days in Iowa.
Klobuchar’s biggest challenge in Iowa and other early voting states may be that she has no clear lane. She’s not the only woman in the race — Warren, Gabbard, Kamala Harris and Marianne Williamson are also running.
And she’s not the only candidate preaching moderation. Former Vice President Joe Biden is leading many polls as a centrist candidate. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is also garnering attention as a moderate candidate calling for generational change in politics.
Avis Bennett is an independent voter who represents the work ahead for Klobuchar. The 65-year-old watched Klobuchar at a breakfast stop in Dover, New Hampshire, last week and said she wasn’t sure she would support the senator.
“Amy is kind of the same old, same old senator,” Bennett said. “I think her ideas are great, but I think Mayor Pete really grasped our interest.”
Facing such skepticism, Klobuchar is persistent in her message, framing herself as a pragmatic progressive who is one of the most prolific and bipartisan legislators in the Senate. That’s a subtle contrast with Buttigieg, who has no national political experience, as well as Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who each have passed a fraction of the legislation she has during their time in office.
And coming from the neighboring state of Minnesota, where voters like personal contact with their politicians, Klobuchar says she’s good at the kind of retail campaigning that helps long-shot candidates win in the early voting states.
“I’m someone who believes in retail politics, believes in telling the truth to people and sometimes that’s harder to do if you’re just battling on the airwaves,” she said. “But it’s much easier to do in the states where people really want to meet you and really want to see your face.”
During the course of her three-day tour across Iowa, she twice took groups of voters for impromptu tours of the bus. She listened intently as the Republican owner of a closed biofuel refinery plant talked about the workers he laid off. And for good measure, she went to a bar Sunday to watch the Minnesota Vikings football game.
The debate may have helped her overcome one key hurdle with some voters: “Making sure people know I’m tough enough” to take on Donald Trump, which she says has been her biggest challenge running for president as a woman.
“One of the most interesting things to me, in this last debate…was how many people have come up about that (and said) ‘OK, I decided you can do this,” she said, incredulously. “I feel like, wow, I have: One, been the DA, run an office of 400 people, and a bunch of lawyers, for eight years; Two, won in some really difficult races; and done multiple debates!”
That was exactly Terry Dalmasso’s takeaway from the October debate. The 71-year-old retired pharmacist drove over from Illinois to see Klobuchar speak in Davenport, Iowa, and he said he was “very impressed” with the senator.
“I originally thought she was too timid because you have to be able to be forceful and be confident,” he said. “She obviously is both of those now, I saw that in her last debate.”
Klobuchar says she’s optimistic about her prospects, but won’t predict a top-three finish in Iowa. She’s planning for every contingency, noting she’s working to get on the primary ballot in all 50 states. The primary could “easily” go to a contested convention, Klobuchar said.
“There’s a lot of good people running,” she said. “And we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Associated Press writer Hunter Woodall in Dover, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.