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Klobuchar faces make-or-break Iowa sprint after strong debate

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharFederal appeals court rules Minnesota must separate late-arriving mail-in ballots Trump announces intention to nominate two individuals to serve as FEC members Start focusing on veterans' health before they enlist MORE (D-Minn.) faces a potential turning point in her campaign, provided that she can capitalize on what was widely seen as a superlative debate performance this week. 

The debate comes as she expands her operations in Iowa and kicks off a three-day, 27-county bus tour in the Hawkeye State, where she has recently seen a bump. A Des Moines Register/CNN poll released last month showed the senator in fifth place at 6 percent support, marking her highest showing yet in the critical caucus state. 

Klobuchar’s campaign has been laser-focused on Iowa, where she is seen as needing to finish among the top contenders to give a boost to a campaign that has so far failed to catch fire.

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However, she faces a steep challenge in a race where she has been consistently overshadowed by the race's front-runners despite being a three-term senator from Minnesota. 

“She’s still very much in that survive and advance stage of the campaign,” said Kelly Dietrich, founder of the National Democratic Training Committee. “All of this is about surviving and advancing so you can create the next moment to create more momentum.” 

Klobuchar has qualified for every debate stage in the 2020 primary race, including the next debate in January, providing her with a national platform beyond the early caucus and primary states. 

She has also survived in a race that has already seen the departures of candidates such as Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisThere's still time to put Kamala Harris front and center Hillicon Valley: Biden campaign slams Facebook after thousands of ads blocked | Majority of voters in three swing states saw ads on social media questioning election validity: poll | Harris more often the target of online misinformation The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Pollsters stir debate over Trump numbers MORE (D-Calif.) and former Rep. Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeHarris to travel to Texas Friday after polls show tie between Trump, Biden Cruz wants donors to repay K he loaned to his 2018 campaign Texas Republicans sound post-2020 alarm bells MORE (D-Texas), who received more attention but were unable to sustain their campaigns.

The debate on Thursday night, the smallest so far of the primary cycle, has earned her widespread praise, with a number of strategists and pundits saying it marked a “breakout moment.”  

The senator especially received praise for breaking up a back-and-forth between Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren has expressed interest in being Biden's Treasury secretary: report The Democrats' 50 state strategy never reached rural America What a Biden administration should look like MORE (D-Mass.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegWhat a Biden administration should look like Conservative operatives Wohl, Burkman charged in Ohio over false robocalls LGBTQ voters must show up at the polls, or risk losing progress MORE (D) over fundraising, in which the progressive senator attacked her moderate rival for holding a high-dollar fundraiser in a Napa Valley wine cave. 

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“I did not come here to listen to this argument,” Klobuchar said after the exchange between the two leading contenders.

“And I have never even been to a wine cave. I have been to the wind cave in South Dakota, which I suggest you go to.”

The moment, with its humorous injection, gave her a way to rise above the fray, according to strategists. 

“She was able to make her two peers [Buttigieg and Warren] look ridiculous and unfocused, or at least focused on the wrong things,” Democratic strategist Jon Reinish said. “And then she was able to get to her message and get to right who she was.” 

She also notably got the second-most speaking time on Thursday with 19 minutes and 53 seconds, trailing only Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTlaib, Ocasio-Cortez offer bill to create national public banking system Cutting defense spending by 10 percent would debilitate America's military The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Election night could be a bit messy MORE (I-Vt.). 

Klobuchar's campaign reported raising $1 million in online donations in 24 hours after Thursday night’s primary debate, in a sign of momentum.

But whether she can now capitalize on that debate moment remains uncertain. Harris got a bump in the polls and in fundraising after a memorable exchange with former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden leads Trump by 8 points nationally: poll Ivanka Trump raises million in a week for father's campaign On The Money: McConnell says Congress will take up stimulus package at start of 2021 | Lawmakers see better prospects for COVID deal after election MORE over racial busing at the July debate, but lost momentum soon after.

Klobuchar, a centrist candidate, has consistently struggled to break into the top tier of candidates. Strategists say she has been overshadowed by Biden and Buttigieg, both of whom are also running as moderate Democrats. Former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael BloombergLate donor surges push election spending projections to new heights New voters surge to the polls What a Biden administration should look like MORE has also emerged as a strong force after spending over $100 million in national advertising since entering the race last month.

And Sanders and Warren, who represent the progressive camp of the party, consistently continue to finish among the top four in the race.

“I’m not entirely sure there’s a lane for her, unless somebody collapses,” Democratic strategist Joe McLean said. 

Like Sanders and Warren, Klobuchar also faces the prospect of having to spend most of January in Washington as a juror in a Senate impeachment trial for President TrumpDonald John TrumpStephen Miller: Trump to further crackdown on illegal immigration if he wins US records 97,000 new COVID-19 cases, shattering daily record Biden leads Trump by 8 points nationally: poll MORE, potentially sapping any momentum from her campaign, while non-Senate candidates like Buttigieg can focus on the primary race.

“You are at a disadvantage to your competitors,” Dietrich said. “Mayor Pete is going to be able to go to every event. He's not going to have to go back to D.C. Warren, Biden and Sanders have war chests of differing sizes, but they’re still going to be able to communicate with the voters they want.” 

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But few are willing to dismiss Klobuchar, a senator from a Midwestern state who has won each of her Senate races by double-digit margins.

The senator is putting most of her resources on Iowa, where she has 18 offices and 70 staffers across the state.

Klobuchar has relied on a more intimate campaign approach, which she is keen to show off in Iowa, a state where retail politicking is critical. The senator has long been known for her humor, including joking about raising money from her ex-boyfriends in her first Senate race.

"When people know me, they vote for me, and they believe in me,” she told reporters on Thursday. 

Strategists say that could pay dividends in an unpredictable race. Iowa polls have shown major shifts among the top candidates, signaling a fluid race where caucus goers have yet to settle on a candidate.

“There are so many late surges that can happen and I think you're going to see a reshuffling of the deck,” Reinish said.  “I’m going to say it's hers to lose, but she's really become one to watch.”