SHELDON, Iowa — Amy Klobuchar keeps telling Iowans about the text she got from a friend cheering her “insurgency” after last week’s debate. The friend meant to say “surge,” but Klobuchar found the auto-correct error funny — and whatever you call it, she’s desperate to convince Iowa it’s for real.
Sprinting across the state’s sparsely populated, westernmost reaches, Klobuchar is heralding her many endorsements in the state, a doubling of her staff in Iowa and the $1 million she raised in the day after the debate on Thursday night.
Six weeks before the caucuses, the Minnesota senator occupies a unique place in the Democratic presidential primary. She sits firmly outside the top tier of contenders. But she is the one candidate viewed widely in Iowa — by local party officials, campaign operatives and her competitors — as having the last, best chance to disrupt the caucus field.
“Amy is dynamite,” said former Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, who has endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden but attended a Klobuchar house party this past weekend in Council Bluffs. “Who knows where it leads, but Iowans have spent the last six months getting to know these candidates, and now they’re in the position where they’re getting to make up their minds.”
Sitting in the kitchen while Klobuchar met with supporters in the living room, Gronstal said of her, “The surge is real.”
If it is, it has yet to fully materialize. Klobuchar is polling at about 6 percent in Iowa and lower nationally. And this is not her first time catching a spark. Klobuchar raised $1 million in the day after the October Democratic presidential primary debate, too. “Klomentum” made its appearance in the political lexicon then, before fading.
Snapping her fingers at a winery (one, for the record, without a cave) in Ida Grove on Sunday, she said, “Things can change like that.”
In recent weeks, Klobuchar has doubled the size of her operation in Iowa to nearly 80 staffers in the state. She has 18 offices, and after the latest debate, her campaign said she posted record days for caucus commitments and precinct captain recruitments.
Her campaign is running TV ads in every market in the state and said it plans to remain on the air through the caucuses. She is raising money, and she is traveling to far-flung, conservative stretches of Iowa, including 27 counties over a four-day trip that ended Monday.
“Now we can pay for that bus!” Klobuchar told a small crowd of supporters at a coffee shop in Logan on Sunday when her green campaign bus pulled into view.
Jeff Link, a Democratic strategist in Iowa whose Focus on Rural America poll has had Klobuchar higher than most other surveys has, said, “The big question is whether she can catch one of the four at the top.”
As one of the field’s more centrist Democrats, Klobuchar’s success almost certainly relies on a Biden collapse. But Klobuchar’s advisers believe most Iowa voters are only now beginning to decide on a candidate, and her Midwest sensibilities and decency-based critiques of President Donald Trump wear well here.
Norm Sterzenbach, a former executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party, is advising her, after working for former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s failed presidential campaign. And the candidate herself playfully encouraged a late-night crowd in Council Bluffs to commit to her in the spirit of the holidays, or inebriation.
“Sign one of those commit-to-caucus [cards],” she said. “It’s the holidays, you know, you never remember what happens the next morning, at a holiday party. Just sign one of those cards.”
Her opponents aren’t sure what to make of her movement following the debate. Crowd sizes — always an imprecise measure of enthusiasm — are even less instructive in the small, rural areas Klobuchar visited over the weekend. Yet about 50 people were waiting for her before dawn in a restaurant in rural Sheldon on Monday.
Strategists working with several rival campaigns said they expected Klobuchar’s debate to result in at least some polling uptick in the state. And by the weekend, they were beginning to recirculate opposition research on Klobuchar — from old accusations of mistreatment by staff to her past support for some of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees.
Of her post-debate bump, an adviser to one candidate said, “She hasn’t been attacked yet. I don’t think anyone’s going to let this stand.”
A strategist working with another candidate said he does not expect that Klobuchar will “light it up anywhere,” but that “she’ll be viable in most places in the state, which is good for fourth.”
A fourth place finish would exceed expectations and mark a dramatic turn for Klobuchar. In an interview, she said it was difficult for her to gain traction earlier this year because “it was such a crowded field.”
“There was a lot of national media attention on certain candidates,” she said while traveling on her bus between events. “And no matter how many shows you go on, it was hard to break through when there were so many people. And then, there was a lot of national attention on people who aren’t even in the race anymore, so that took up a lot of space.”
Two candidates who once drew significant attention, O’Rourke and Sen. Kamala Harris, are no longer in the race. Mayor Pete Buttigieg appears vulnerable, and it was Klobuchar’s attack on him last week — primarily over issues of experience — that gave her campaign a new lift.
At the winery, where Klobuchar bought several bottles of wine, 10 of roughly 30 people in the audience signed commitments to caucus for Klobuchar, the campaign said. The winery’s co-owner, Lenee Sinnott, said Klobuchar “shot up on my list” during the debate.
And Thad Cosgrove, chairman of the Ida County Democrats, said that in recent days, “It appears to me that Warren’s going down and Klobuchar’s going up.”
By Monday, Klobuchar was losing her voice. The holidays are looming, a time when people typically pay less attention to politics. And in January, Trump’s pending impeachment trial in the Senate will pull Klobuchar and other senators off the campaign at a critical time.
Klobuchar will send surrogates to the state and find other ways to campaign around the proceedings.
But sitting on her bus, she said, “You kind of wish we could keep doing this.”
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