Both speak directly and concisely with confidence. They passionately defend problem-solving and moderate alternatives to the Medicare-for-all scheme. They advance a responsible, internationalist view of U.S. leadership in the world. They avoid extreme and unworkable ideas, such as gun confiscation. So how do they build on their performances and generate a bump in the polls to elevate themselves into the top tier?
First, they head for Iowa. Buttigieg has a considerable presence on the ground there, with 22 offices as of Oct 12. His recent bus tour attracted big crowds and positive media coverage. He has been moving up in the Iowa polls; in the RealClearPolitics average, he now draws 12 percent, just 4 points behind Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). It is in Iowa, with an intense ground game and retail political skills, that Buttigieg looks to beat expectations, which likely means finishing ahead of at least one of the top three candidates.
For Klobuchar, a good showing in a farm state bordering Minnesota is a do-or-die proposition. She has considerably less money than Buttigieg but has been able to set up 10 offices in Iowa. Beating expectations there likely means finishing in at least fourth place or a strong fifth.
Buttigieg and Klobuchar excelled in the debate, playing the role of truth-tellers and earnest opponents of Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sanders by making their far-left positions deficits in the “electability” category. In Iowa, straight talk might be the key to their climb in the polls.
Buttigieg is putting forth a twofold argument that Warren’s health-care plan is both unworkable and makes her too risky for a general-election candidate. “Well, we heard it tonight, a yes-or-no question that didn’t get a yes-or-no answer. Look, this is why people here in the Midwest are so frustrated with Washington in general and Capitol Hill in particular. Your signature, senator, is to have a plan for everything. Except this,” he said. “No plan has been laid out to explain how a multitrillion-dollar hole in this Medicare-for-all plan that Sen. Warren is putting forward is supposed to get filled in. And the thing is, we really can deliver health care for every American and move forward with the boldest, biggest transformation since the inception of Medicare itself.”
This seems to be his strongest suit: “I’m not going to lie to you, and I’m looking for workable solutions to your problems.” That is a message he needs to keep hitting even though he is more likely to pick up votes from supporters of former vice president Joe Biden.
Why not attack Biden? For one thing, Buttigieg is trying to ingratiate himself with Biden voters (and not beat up on a sympathetic figure in the party) and for another, Buttigieg is betting that a side-by-side comparison between a sometimes meandering, older candidate and a verbally dexterous, young candidate will speak for itself. (Hey, if he is so good at expressing himself and making a case against Warren, maybe he’s the guy with the skill set to take Trump apart.) Buttigieg would also be wise to use foreign policy as a way of demonstrating judgment (“I didn’t vote for the Iraq War,” he can say without mentioning Biden specifically) and, once more, as a way of making the case that Warren’s brand of isolationism will be a drag on Democrats in the general election.
Klobuchar can make the “sane and electable on health care and foreign policy” argument, but she has two other arrows in her quiver. First, she’s the one who can win the Midwest, she argues. “We can’t get any of this done on climate change or immigration reform unless they win. And what I have done is win and the only one up here, time and time again, the reddest of red districts, Michele Bachmann’s, I — I won that district three times, rural districts that border Iowa and North and South Dakota," she argued in the debate. "And I do it by going not just where it’s comfortable but where it’s uncomfortable.” Second, instead of a plan for everything, she’s had a bill for everything (e.g. antitrust enforcement, the Honest Ads Act, drug prices), for which in many cases she has rounded up Republican support. She’s the one with the secret sauce for getting things done in highly partisan times.
The argument for both candidates essentially boils down to this: Warren and Sanders are scary and unelectable. I am electable, and I’m a heck of a better candidate than Biden. That is what Buttigieg and Klobuchar need to drive home again and again between now and the Iowa caucuses.