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

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharSenate Democrats call on Biden to immediately invoke Defense Production Act Senate Democrats make democracy reform first bill of new majority Google completes Fitbit acquisition 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 HarrisScalise bringing Donna Brazile as guest to Biden inauguration McConnell, Schumer fail to cut power-sharing deal amid filibuster snag Howard University's marching band to escort Harris at inauguration MORE (D-Calif.) and former Rep. Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeBoebert appears to carry gun on Capitol Hill in new ad 7 surprise moments from a tumultuous year in politics Mexican president breaks with other world leaders, refusing to acknowledge Biden win until election is finalized 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 WarrenBiden pick for Pentagon cruises through confirmation hearing Senate Democrats call on Biden to immediately invoke Defense Production Act Biden consumer bureau pick could take over agency on Inauguration Day MORE (D-Mass.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Senate majority offers Biden new avenues on Trump environmental rollbacks | Democrats eye action on range of climate bills | Biden pushing to cancel Keystone XL pipeline as soon as he takes office: reports Biden rolls out group of deputy secretary nominees On The Money: Retail sales drop in latest sign of weakening economy | Fast-food workers strike for minimum wage | US officials raise concerns over Mexico's handling of energy permits 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 SandersThe Memo: Trump leaves changed nation in his wake Cori Bush dismisses concerns of being 'co-opted' by establishment The Memo: Biden prepares for sea of challenges 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 BidenTrump grants clemency to more than 100 people, including Bannon Scalise bringing Donna Brazile as guest to Biden inauguration Sidney Powell withdraws 'kraken' lawsuit in Georgia 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 BloombergBiden selects Gina Raimondo for Commerce chief: reports 7 surprise moments from a tumultuous year in politics NFL, politics dominate 2020 ratings 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 TrumpLil Wayne gets 11th hour Trump pardon Trump grants clemency to more than 100 people, including Bannon Trump expected to pardon Bannon: reports 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.”