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At a time when many Democrats are sounding Eeyorish, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar is cracking jokes and winning over voters by telling them, “I know you, and I will fight for you.” After months or polling in the single digits, she is wriggling out of her stiff senatorial shell and had moved into third place ahead of Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary.
Her late surge may reflect a yearning for civility – and a calculation that the best way to beat President Donald Trump is to field a candidate who can woo back white working-class Midwesterners and disaffected Republicans. “I think she’s a healer,” says former state Rep. Sally Kelly of Chichester, New Hampshire, who grabbed a front-row seat at a Klobuchar rally in New Hampshire this weekend, where up to 100 people were still waiting to get in after the event was scheduled to start.
But Senator Klobuchar, despite having passed four times as many bills as the average Democratic senator, and running a modest campaign on far fewer donations than any of the other front-runners, faces an uphill battle in the bigger states that will soon follow.
“My plan,” vows Sen. Amy Klobuchar, putting on her best Trumpian air, “is to build a beauuuuuuuutiful blue wall … and make Donald Trump pay for it!”
That wall, she tells the cheering crowd in Salem, New Hampshire, will be made up of Democrats, independents, even moderate Republicans. Together, they will prevent President Trump from sweeping key battleground states – a category she extends to New Hampshire. And indeed, there are plenty of swing voters here, a state where Hillary Clinton won by fewer than 2,800 ballots.
“Amy speaks to my sensibilities more than anybody,” says David Liddy, a lifelong Republican and retired naval officer who changed his party affiliation to vote in Tuesday’s primary, though he retains conservative views. “She seems to be very dedicated, very hardworking.”
As the granddaughter of an iron ore miner who has consistently won over Minnesota’s rural voters – including in 2018, when she emerged victorious in 42 counties that had gone for Mr. Trump two years earlier – Senator Klobuchar came down the homestretch in New Hampshire with arms wide open for the state’s independents and disaffected Republicans like Mr. Liddy.
Until Friday, there was little evidence that she was getting much traction. Now, after a strong debate performance, she’s the buzziest candidate. And at the 11th hour, she seems to have wriggled out of her stiff senatorial shell and is showing audiences a warm, even funny side.
As other Democrats sound increasingly Eeyorish, Senator Klobuchar is buoyant, cracking jokes about the president’s complaint that his cameo was cut from Home Alone II (“Who does that?”) and alluding to his cancellation of a Denmark trip after the prime minister rebuffed his interest in buying Greenland.
It seems to be working. Multiple polls showed her in third place in New Hampshire, edging ahead of Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden. At Klobuchar rallies over the weekend, attendance far exceeded the expectations of her campaign. In Manchester Saturday, staffers had to ask attendees to stand so their chairs could be removed to make room for more people.
Democrats are split over whether they want a progressive champion who will push for sweeping change, or a centrist figure who can right the ship. They’re also uncertain about whether the best way to beat Mr. Trump is with a candidate who excites the base or one who could woo back white working-class Midwesterners.
The “Klomentum” is clearly driven by voters who subscribe to the latter theory, some of whom have been casting around for another option after Mr. Biden finished a disappointing fourth in Iowa despite leading in national polls for much of the past year.
“You have Trump skating through the impeachment, his big State of the Union speech – and I think Democrats are saying, ‘How do we beat this guy?’” says Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center in Durham. Pete Buttigieg is seen as too young and inexperienced, he says. Bernie Sanders, they worry, will get hammered as a socialist. And Joe Biden is flaming out. “People are saying, ‘What’s left?’” says Dr. Smith. “And she’s left.”
A scrappy campaign
Like most pundits and pollsters, Dr. Smith didn’t see her placing better than third in New Hampshire, despite the fact that independents – who comprise 40% of registered voters here – could vote in the Democratic primary. Rather than becoming the nominee, the thinking goes, she may just seriously hurt both Ms. Warren and Mr. Biden, further splintering the Democratic field. Then again, few expected her to get this far when she announced her candidacy a year ago in Minneapolis, standing on the banks of the Mississippi in the middle of a snowstorm, arguing she was the one with the necessary grit to beat Donald Trump and bridge “the river of our divides.”
“The thing that is critical to me is healing the country,” says former Democratic state Rep. Sally Kelly of Chichester, New Hampshire. “I think she’s a healer.”
Those who have known her for decades say that is born out of experience, including loving her father throughout his battle with alcoholism.
“I think there’s a lot of forgiveness and empathy in her ability to do that,” says longtime friend Kate Herrmann Stacy, who was a bridesmaid in Ms. Klobuchar’s wedding. “When we were in law school, I would react quickly and conclude, ‘Oh, that person is such a jerk.’ She was kinder and more forgiving and would have a better sense of why they might be acting that way.”
Despite gaining a reported $4 million in donations since Friday’s debate, Senator Klobuchar may not be well-positioned to capitalize on a strong showing in New Hampshire when the race moves on to the larger states of Nevada and South Carolina. She has raised barely a quarter as much as Senator Sanders – $28.7 million compared with his $107.9 million – and less than half of the three other front-runners. She doesn’t even make it into the top 10 in terms of Democratic campaign spending so far.
In New Hampshire, Senators Sanders and Warren already had around 75 staffers on the ground when the Klobuchar campaign hired its third staffer last spring. Thanks to the endorsements of three state newspapers, including the traditionally conservative Union Leader, and talking with thousands of voters at Rotary clubs or local restaurants over plates of poutine, she managed to stay alive even as other, flashier candidates dropped out.
“Think of what she has accomplished, to be where she is in this campaign with the resources she has,” says Michael Atkins, a Peterborough lawyer who was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 2008 and 2004. An early endorser of Senator Klobuchar, he says 90% of people he talks with after her rallies walk away sold.
“We’ve run a scrappy campaign,” says Karen Cornelius, a New Hampshire retiree who has been volunteering full time for the past year to help her former law school classmate get elected.
‘I know you’
One silver lining to her relative lack of campaign resources is that it reinforces her image as fiscally responsible.
She routinely pulls up to election rallies in nondescript rental cars – not the big SUVs with tinted windows favored by some other candidates. After one of her first TV appearances, her friend Ms. Stacy texted to compliment her on the teal jacket she was wearing. I got it on sale! $29.95, Ms. Klobuchar wrote back.
On Monday, as her modest campaign was enjoying its biggest moment yet in the media spotlight, that was the jacket she chose to wear.
“She’s low-key, she’s not flashy at all,” says Richard Leland, a California Republican waiting in line for a Biden event with five fellow Republicans, all of whom say the Republican Party has turned its back on fiscal conservatism. All say they’d vote for Senator Klobuchar “in a heartbeat” over President Trump.
Last week, the head of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan organization calling for fiscal responsibility, singled out Senator Klobuchar as the only presidential candidate “with an express goal of lowering the debt-to-GDP ratio.” At a time when other Democrats are proposing massive increases in government spending, her plan calls for establishing a $300 billion fund, seeded with an increase in the corporate tax rate, “to make a down payment to tackle the U.S. debt and protect our economy” – and help reduce the annual budget deficit, currently projected to exceed $1 trillion.
“If she sticks with that, she’ll get a lot of Trump supporters,” says David Marti, a Trump voter whose son brought him to see Senator Klobuchar this weekend in hopes of persuading his dad to vote for a Democrat.
When Senator Klobuchar arrived in New Hampshire at 4 a.m. last week with the Iowa caucus results still unclear, Ms. Cornelius heard a new line in her stump speech.
The senator, who has been reading historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on presidential leadership, related a story from the days following President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death. As the train carrying his body caused a man watching to break into tears, a reporter asked, Sir, did you know the president?
No, the man replied. But he knew me.
Senator Klobuchar has lately adapted that line, presenting an image for voters that is far different than one created by a series of negative articles last spring criticizing her exigent approach as a boss.
“If you have trouble stretching your paycheck to pay for that rent, I know you, and I will fight for you,” she said in her closing remarks at the debate. “I’m asking you to believe that someone who totally believes in America can win this, because if you are tired of the extremes in our politics and the noise and the nonsense, you have a home with me.”
Staff writer Story Hinckley contributed to this report.