The Minnesota Democrat is on many voters' shortlist but not at the top. She says she's the one who can beat Trump.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., at a campaign stop in a winery in Ida Grove, Iowa, on Dec. 22, 2019. The Democratic presidential candidate hit 10 percent in a December Iowa poll, giving her solid ground to stand on ahead of the caucuses. Jerry Mennenga / ZUMA Wire file
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BETTENDORF, Iowa — One month from the Iowa caucuses, many voters say Amy Klobuchar is their runner-up.
After a strong debate performance two weeks ago, the Democratic senator from Minnesota is having the moment she's been chasing for months: There's an increase in donations, bigger crowds and more media attention. Even before the debate, she hit 10 percent in an Emerson College poll of Iowa last month for a fifth place showing, behind the top tier of candidates: former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
On Friday, the Klobuchar campaign announced it had raised $11.4 million in the fourth quarter of 2019, more than double its third quarter haul of $4.8 million.
In numerous interviews last week at Klobuchar's campaign events across the state, Iowans said that she's on their shortlist — often right behind Biden — but many added that they are not ready to caucus for her Feb. 3, the first balloting in the Democratic 2020 primary contest.
"I know people say, 'You're in my top three' — that's cool, thank you," Klobuchar said with a smile to a packed room of Quad Cities Democrats on Saturday, her last in a two-day, six-stop spin through Iowa after Christmas. "But we would really love it if you signed on with us."
The Klobuchar campaign is hoping it can convert the interest into real gains in the final weeks here. Second choices can matter in Iowa's quirky caucus system, where any candidate who doesn't secure at least 15 percent support in the first round is knocked out, and their backers are encouraged to throw their support behind others. More voters list Warren as a second-choice candidate than any other contender, according to recent polls from Iowa State and Monmouth universities, but more pick Klobuchar, 59, as their second-choice than their first.
Klobuchar, a third-term Minnesota senator, was a corporate lawyer when she was forced to leave the hospital just 24 hours after giving birth to a sick daughter, Abigail. She lobbied the state Legislature to pass a law guaranteeing new moms and their babies a 48-hour stay, activism that inspired her political career; she went on to run for Hennepin County attorney and for Senate in 2006.
She started running for president in February, flying largely under the radar and staking out a moderate Midwestern lane, advocating for policies such as building on Obamacare, investing in infrastructure and rural communities, and a "return to sanity" on foreign policy.
In Iowa, just over one quarter of likely caucusgoers, 28 percent, said in a recent Monmouth poll that they were "firmly decided" on their choice — and it's stats like that that give Klobuchar hope she can still break into the top tier in the remaining weeks.
"Amy is my second choice at this time," John Grause, 58, told NBC News in Humboldt, adding that it was his Republican mother's interest in Klobuchar that prompted him to give her a look.
But, Grause said, Warren still tops his list because of her support for "Medicare for All," which Klobuchar has criticized for eliminating private insurance.
Kathy Graves, 72, also said Klobuchar was her No. 2, after Biden. The reason? She believes she knows the national Democratic front-runner better.
"I know his values, I know his morals,” she said of Biden at a Klobuchar campaign event in Estherville.
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Klobuchar has just finished campaigning in all of Iowa's 99 counties — a feat called the "full Grassley," named for Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, who does a tour of the entire state every year. She visited restaurants and bars; in some areas when there weren't any available local venues, she brought voters aboard her campaign bus to talk.
The grueling schedule — her bus logged more than 1,000 miles in one day, she tweeted — brought her deep into Trump country. Few Democrats campaign in the state's rural counties like Humboldt, where voters said she was the first candidate to come to them, but that fits right in with Klobuchar's view of the election.
"My theory of the case is we need to get independents, moderate Republicans, Democrats, people in our base that stay at home, people who even voted for Donald Trump but now regret it," she told the Bettendorf crowd.
That approach is how she's won in the past. Jeff Blodgett, a longtime friend and informal adviser, said Klobuchar distinguished herself as a candidate in Minnesota by spending the first few months of her Senate bid traveling extensively in rural areas before she zeroed in on the Twin Cities, where Democrats often concentrate their time.
"I think it was that statewide travel and that presence in communities that established a certain credibility about being someone who could represent everyone," said Blodgett, who was the Minnesota state director for Barack Obama's two presidential runs.
In a state where Democrats say their No. 1 objective is to defeat the president, Klobuchar is quick to note that she won 42 Minnesota counties that Trump took in the presidential election in 2016. She aims to compete — and win — in "every race, every place," a saying that's emblazoned on campaign signs.
But right now, the only race that matters is the Iowa caucuses.
Klobuchar "has gone all in on this notion of she's a neighbor and she understands the key issues that Iowans care about, and I think that's serving her well” said Matt Paul, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Iowa state director, who is neutral in the current primary. "I think she's got to close with, 'I'm going to do well in Iowa and here's what I'm going to do with it.'"
And that doesn't mean she has to win: "She just has to surprise people here, and she seems well-positioned to do that."
Klobuchar says she's on the rise due to her debate performances and a winnowing of the field.
"People have gotten to know me better, they've got to see that I'm tough enough to take on Donald Trump," she said in an interview.
In the November and December debates, the Minnesota senator landed effective blows on her opponents, calling out Warren for not laying out how she'd pay for Medicare for All and denigrating Buttigieg as a "local official" and failed statewide candidate in Indiana. (In 2010, Buttigieg lost in a landslide when he ran for state treasurer.)
The expected upcoming impeachment trial of Trump could scramble the January campaign schedules of those candidates like Klobuchar who serve in the Senate. There's a debate scheduled in Iowa on Jan. 14 when the Senate may be holding the trial, potentially trapping some senators in Washington — but Klobuchar said the debate must go on.
"I'll do it at midnight — could be to my advantage, I'll do anytime," she told reporters. "But we have to have this debate."
In a race with candidates promising seismic political changes, it can be sometimes hard to sell practicality and incremental progress on issues like health care.
There's nothing flashy or surprising about Klobuchar's campaign. She ticks off legislative work — bills to build bridges, improve rural broadband and secure elections — and leans into the nuts-and-bolts parts of legislating.
But that's what voters like about her.
"She was pragmatic, but funny — I did not know she was funny!" Carol Barnhart, 60, said at a Klobuchar campaign event in Des Moines, adding that she plans to support her at the caucuses next month. "She was real, she just felt real. Honestly, I have a lot of, um, Republican siblings — we have the kind of Thanksgiving where you can't talk about politics. They're not huge Trump fans; I think they would go for her."
If Klobuchar's second-choice support can't elevate her in Iowa and the rest of the primary states, it's possible her appeal could help her onto someone else's ticket.
“There’s no question she’ll be one of the top two or three” people in the mix for vice president if she doesn’t win the nomination, said Tom Nides, a former deputy secretary of state and longtime Democratic insider who co-hosted a fundraiser for Biden in November.
"She hasn't changed one iota," he added, noting she's already outlasted candidates such as Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke. "People are looking for one thing in American politics today and that's authenticity. She has that in spades."
Is the No. 2 spot on the Democratic ticket something she'd consider?
"No, no, I am running for president," Klobuchar said. "And I'm in a good position right now."
Jane C. Timm
Jane C. Timm is a political reporter for NBC News.