“Woman in gold coat takes selfie with John McCain and Bernie Sanders,” Klobuchar recalled, as the crowd erupted with sympathetic laughter.
Less funny, anonymity also has largely defined Klobuchar’s role in the Democratic presidential contest — even though she has been a senator from Minnesota for 12 years and serves in leadership, even though she passes more legislation each session than most Democrats, even though she’s regularly on cable news and is campaigning across the country.
At the beginning of the latest Democratic debate earlier this month, Klobuchar — who was stationed at the last lectern on the far left of the stage — embraced reality.
“I may not be the loudest person up here, but I think we’ve already got that in the White House,” she said, adding, “If you feel stuck in the middle of the extremes in our politics, and you are tired of the noise and the nonsense, you’ve got a home with me.”
The question for her campaign: In a primary driven by more combative activists, how many voters want that? And why her over other centrist candidates?
Klobuchar has seen a small bump in some polls since that debate, delighting her and her staff. A September Focus on Rural America poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers found her support at 8 percent, and a Des Moines Register-CNN-Mediacom Iowa poll released last weekend put her at 3 percent. Yet an average of national polls in September showed Klobuchar’s support around 1 percent.
She’s leaning on the fact that most voters say their support is fluid. Yet, for months she’s been overshadowed in the center by former vice president Joe Biden, who, like her, contends he’s a champion of working-class Midwestern voters and union members and knows how to work with Republicans to get legislation passed. And she has no clear strategy for changing that.
While most Democratic candidates have publicly challenged Biden — questioning his age and his comments on racial issues, among other things — Klobuchar largely has refrained and has even come to Biden’s defense. When asked why she thinks she would have a better shot at winning Rust Belt states than Biden, who grew up in Pennsylvania, Klobuchar says that she is “actually from the Midwest,” is a woman and is “in a new generation of politicians.” (At 59, she is 17 years younger than Biden.)
“A generation that actually has governed during the Trump era, which I think is key,” she said during a recent campaign stop in Philadelphia. “I was able to navigate this Congress during and before Donald Trump.”
Meanwhile, Klobuchar has repeatedly questioned and criticized policy ideas embraced by the two most prominent liberals in the race — Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — that she says are too costly and would be paid for by the already strapped middle class. That includes Medicare-for-all, which Klobuchar calls “a bad idea” that would kick 149 million Americans off their current health insurance plans, and making four-year colleges tuition free, which she says would force blue-collar workers to foot tuition bills of “rich kids.”
These sorts of ideas “are better left in the college faculty lounge,” Klobuchar said in Detroit last week — which sounded like a jab at Warren, a former law professor, although Klobuchar insisted it wasn’t. Klobuchar has said that although Warren has a plethora of plans, her own plans “have deadlines” and are more likely to be passed and implemented.
Via a small charter plane, Klobuchar recently took a whirlwind two-day trip through Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, three usually Democratic states that gave Trump the White House. During the trip, she made sure to note that in 2018 she won 42 Minnesota counties that voted for Trump two years earlier, when he came surprisingly close to winning her home state.
Klobuchar said that presidential candidates need to keep voters in these states in mind now — and that a more moderate candidate would have better success there during a general election.
During a visit to a carpentry-training center in Pittsburgh, Klobuchar often finished the sentences of her tour guides as they spoke of the dire need for welders and their frustration that some parents push their kids into four-year colleges when a trade school would be a better fit.
She said the government should double the amount of money given to students through Pell grants, increase the income cap to qualify for those grants and make one- and two-year-degree programs free.
“We are so focused sometimes on one path to success and that’s not everyone’s path to success, and we need to make it easier for students to go to programs like this,” she said.
The next day, she took artisanal doughnuts to United Auto Workers members striking outside a General Motors assembly factory in Detroit.
“I stand with you guys,” she told them. “You stood with the company when it was in trouble, right? Took a bunch of cuts, did things. And now the company is doing better, and you should share in that prosperity.”
Some responded positively.
“She said all the right things — which they do, but she seemed heartfelt and genuine, and you don’t usually get that from politicians,” said Meoshee Edwards, 47, who has worked at the plant for 23 years, likes Sanders and knew nothing about Klobuchar before she showed up. “She seems to know exactly what we’re fighting for and why we’re fighting for it. . . . I am going to research her now.”
But Klobuchar wasn’t warmly embraced everywhere. During a tour of a dairy farm in rural Wisconsin — home to a young calf named “Amy” in her honor — a few of the local farmers who had gathered to meet her were upset that she spent more time talking to the media than to them. Later that day, she stopped by a training session in Milwaukee to share her ideas for expanding voting access with a group of African American activists and take a few questions about her time as a prosecutor. As she took a photograph with the group, one man declined to be included because he said she hadn’t taken enough questions and hadn’t fully answered the questions she was asked.
Throughout the trip, Klobuchar made clear that to her, being a moderate isn’t just about policy — it’s also about her tone and approach. That’s meant focusing on issues and legislation that Republicans are willing to work on, even if it doesn’t excite a lot of Democratic primary voters. It has meant remaining calm and collected while questioning Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing. It has meant being the un-snazzy mom on the debate stage who scolds the others when they bicker.
“We need to not just change the policies in our country, but also change the tone of our politics,” Klobuchar said to cheers in a Milwaukee coffee shop last week.
Sitting in the audience was Nancy Glissman, 59, who drove more than two hours with her husband from Illinois to be there. For many years, Glissman voted for Republicans for president but then voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. With Trump in office, she is now firmly a Democrat.
“I think Amy could lead us out of this without being divisive to our country,” said Glissman, who is retired. “We need somebody strong, but somebody that everyone can trust and get around. I think she’s that kind of person.”
Glissman sat with Brenda Dourseau, 60, a retired corrections officer who said the party needs to focus on reconnecting with young voters such as her grandchildren — and she wasn’t sure whether Klobuchar was the person to do that.
“We need a candidate that can really touch these millennials. If they can lead them and get them excited, then [baby boomers] are going to follow, because we know that we have to get Trump out of there,” she said. Democrats “need to go to the younger voters. They truly do.”
Tom Glissman, Nancy’s husband, said that he would give Klobuchar more consideration if she were doing better in the polls. He is leaning toward Warren — although he wishes she would abandon her calls for Medicare-for-all and instead embrace offering a public option, as Klobuchar has done.
“I love Elizabeth Warren, I really do, but she’s just a little too far left,” Dourseau said. “With all of the fire in the belly she has — if she was a little more moderate, she would be a shoo-in.”
All three agreed that they would vote for any Democrat in the general election.
“I can’t wait until this nightmare is over,” Glissman said. “I can’t wait until this Trump presidency is over. I will sleep better.”
“Me, too,” Dourseau said. “It’s a mess. The country is a mess.”
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.