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AMES, Iowa – Just three days after announcing her intent to run for president in 2020, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand embarked on a whirlwind tour across snowy Iowa, pitching herself to potential voters as an experienced underdog.
While other 2020 hopefuls criss-crossed Iowa during the 2018 midterms, the New York senator's two-day trip through Sioux City, Boone, Ames and Des Moines — where she chatted with hundreds of voters at small events and fired up a Women's March crowd at the state capitol — was her first visit to the crucial first-in-the-nation caucus state.
She drew smaller crowds than her Democratic rival, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, did during a trip earlier this month, which seemed to suit her fine as she discussed her roots in rural, upstate New York where she won her first congressional race as a long-shot candidate in a conservative House district.
“I’m not a national name and the fact that you turned out to meet me — I’m so grateful,” she told a coffee shop crowd in Ames, where her campaign handed out some of the first Gillibrand campaign T-shirts of the cycle on Saturday. “I plan on being here a lot, so I really appreciate this first opportunity.”
Throughout the weekend, she introduced herself as fiercely optimistic and cheerfully hellbent on finding common ground and unifying a divided country. She applauded the sure-to-be-crowded 2020 field, while pitching herself as uniquely qualified to appeal across the aisle thanks to her own politically moderate beginnings coupled with her progressive bonafides as a liberal senator.
“I work on a bipartisan basis every day. I worked [with] Ted Cruz on ending sexual harassment in Congress — I can work with anybody,” she said to laughs later that day in Des Moines.
While Democrats have spent the last two years soul-searching and sparring over the identity of the party, Gillibrand put forward her vision for a big-tent approach in 2020: Progressive policies unified behind broader ideas like compassion and courage.
But Democrats across the state — still smarting from 2016’s loss and angered by President Donald Trump's administration — wanted to know one thing: Can she win?
“All of us in that room are going to agree with what she says,” remarked Democratic activist Linda Smoley, 71, after hearing Gillibrand speak. “It comes down to who can win.”
Nobody's 'being crowned this time'
Iowans are well aware that they'll have their pick of candidates this year. The majority of likely Democratic caucusgoers polled in December hadn’t yet formed an opinion on the senator, and more than a dozen people interviewed this weekend at Gillibrand events all said they were keeping their options open for now.
“Iowans expect people to show up no matter what office you’re running for,” Boone County Democratic Party Chair Tim Winter told NBC News ahead of Gillibrand’s event at a coffee shop. “Everyone’s on a level playing field. There’s nobody being crowned this time around, and people are excited to hear about all the new candidates.”
Still, several Iowans said Gillibrand impressed them as authentic and personable, with some saying they were heartened to hear about her resume, but were perhaps most struck by her personality.
“Other than Obama, she’s the most down to earth,” said Tim Bottaro, a longtime Democratic activist in Sioux City, told NBC News. “That’s important in politics. If you can project that to nationally? Well, you know, that’s going to strike a chord.”
Still, potential voters were also intent on vetting out Gillibrand’s weaknesses and political liabilities. At a fundraiser for the local Democrats in Sioux City that took place at a private home, she was pressed about her role in Minnesota Sen. Al Franken's resignation after several women accused him of sexual misconduct.
“His decision was to resign. My decision was to not remain silent. You have to stand up for what’s right. Especially when it's hard,” she said, adding that parenthood had played a key role in her decision.
“The conversations I was having at the time with Theo, who was 15, was, 'Mom, why are you being so mean to Al Franken?'” she said. “I had to be very clear with him, as a mother; it's not OK to grope a woman anywhere on her body without consent.”
Rural roots and changing beliefs
To address repeated questions of whether she could win in 2020, Gillibrand held up her successful dark-horse bid for a seat in the House of Representatives in 2006.
Ahead of her run, she told Iowans, pollster told her there were "more cows than Democrats" in her district and she couldn't possibly win the race. But an aggressive grassroots campaign — and a 911 domestic violence call from her opponent's wife that leaked days before the election — helped Gillibrand overcome the odds.
She has argued that her evolving views on gun control and immigration — she once held an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association and opposed "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants, past positions that she will likely continue to be pressed to explain throughout her party's primary — will help her find common ground with all Americans now.
“The way you win campaigns is door to door, family by family, person by person, voter by voter, caucusgoer by caucusgoer. And the truth is our democracy only works when regular people stand up and demand it,” she said in Sioux City on Friday.
These upstate, rural roots are sure to be central to her campaign, and Gillibrand's made it clear she hopes to replicate her 2006 success in 2020. She's set up her campaign headquarters in Troy, New York, and she frequently refers to her House races as proof of her ability to appeal to more conservative voters as well as liberal ones.
But not everything about New York translated for some Iowans.
Asked about jobs, Gillibrand talked up a New York job-training program that increases workers' access to good-paying jobs.
But that's not the issue facing people here, said Lauris Olson, chair of the Story County Board of Supervisors. Central Iowan companies are struggling to find a way to retain talent amid extremely low unemployment rates, she explained.
“Our problem is that we don’t have enough people, yet we've got good paying jobs,” Olson, 61, said, adding that she hoped Gillibrand would study up on that issue before returning. "Where she is, they may be having to retrain people ... we're the opposite."
A decade after Hillary Clinton’s strategists infamously wrote in a campaign memo that Americans viewed the president as a father figure — but weren't ready for a “first mama” — Gillibrand is campaigning to be just that.
“I’m running for president, because I will fight for your kids as hard as I fight for my own,” she told a Des Moines crowd, repeating a line she’s used in nearly every interview and event since declaring her intention to run for president nearly a week ago. “When I hear a constituent story about her life, I imagine that’s happening to my own family.”
Much like many of the record-breaking women candidates who leaned into gender and motherhood on the 2018 campaign trail, Gillibrand is unabashedly identifying herself as a mom and a feminist.
So far, she's also hired a number of women to fill key staff positions: Meredith Kelly, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee alum, is running communications, along with Emmy Bengtson, who ran digital operations for Gavin Newsom's campaign in California. Alexandria Phillips, a former Hillary Clinton aide who worked with Gillibrand on the Senate side until recently, will be the senator's traveling press secretary.
Gillibrand regularly chokes up when she talks about children — the ones affected by gun violence, immigration and extreme weather due to climate change — and policies like public education, universal health care, universal pre-K, and affordable day care are all aimed at families.
Rose Sloven, 61, was apprehensive about Gillibrand’s display of emotion after seeing her speak in Des Moines, where she teared up while retelling a story of a mother whose children had been swept away by storm surge during Superstorm Sandy, prompting gasps from the crowd.
“If she was a man, you’d say she was passionate,” her husband, Dan Sloven, 61, countered. “I think it’s really hard to be a woman running for president. You gotta thread the needle. If you’re too smart, it counts against you. If you’re too emotional, it counts against you.”