Iowa caucuses: Klobuchar puts Trump's impeachment trial at center of high-stakes closing pitch

“I may be the juror in that chamber, but you are the juror in this election,” Klobuchar told prospective caucusgoers at events over the weekend.
Image: Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., speaks at a campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa, on Feb. 1, 2020.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., at a campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday.Alex Wong / Getty Images

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By Jane C. Timm

BETTENDORF, Iowa — This isn’t how Sen. Amy Klobuchar thought the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses would go.

Instead of long stretches on the road for the kind of grassroots, folksy campaigning she perfected running for office next door, in her home state of Minnesota, Klobuchar spent the last two weeks in Washington, consumed by President Donald Trump's impeachment trial.

In her final, frenzied spin across Iowa over the weekend, the senator offered a simple closing argument: The allegations against Trump — and the furious partisan fights stirred by his impeachment — are exactly why she's running.

“I really see this election and my candidacy as really an extension of that, because what this is, this election, yes, it’s an economic check,” she told voters Saturday in a bike shop that served as overflow for the hundreds of people packed into a brewery next door. “But more than that, it is a decency check.”

After a string of strong debate performances, the slow winnowing of a crowded primary field and relentless campaigning, Klobuchar has seen a late polling surge that’s pushed her close to the top tier of candidates running for the Democratic nomination. But Trump's impeachment trial forced her, as well as Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., off the trail for days ahead of Monday's crucial first-in-the-nation caucuses.

This weekend, she seemed determined to make up for lost time, undertaking a seven-city tour that required two charter planes to shuttle the candidate, her campaign and a pack of reporters across hundreds of miles between events. And while the other senators competing for the nomination rarely mentioned impeachment on the stump here, Klobuchar didn't shy away — making her experience as a juror in Trump's trial a key piece of her final pitch.

"I may be the juror in that chamber, but you are the juror in this election," she told a crowd in Beaverdale.

Several voters said they’d watched Klobuchar during the trial, and were impressed by what they saw.

She’s “down to earth — like us,” Sherry Foster, 71, said at an event in Cedar Falls, remarking that Klobuchar had walked her question to Chief Justice John Roberts during the trial instead of having a page do it. (Senators are allowed to ask written questions of House impeachment managers and the president's defense team, with the chief justice presiding over the Senate trial reading them aloud.)

“I like that she’s from the Midwest," Foster added.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., arrive to the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump at the Capitol on Jan. 31, 2020.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

A strong finish in Iowa for Klobuchar — fourth place or better — is key to giving her the kind of momentum she'll need to break into the top tier of candidates while ensuring that New Hampshire voters give her a close look before the state's primary next Tuesday, Feb. 11.

That's no easy feat in a still-crowded primary: In most precincts, supporters of candidates with less than 15 percent are allowed to realign with other candidates, according to state Democratic Party rules.

Klobuchar told NBC News she’s been exceeding expectations for months already, and looks forward to doing so again Monday night.

“I have been punching way above my weight. We have a solid base,” she said. “So many people have spent like five times the amount of money as us. And we are hanging in there strong in the top five.”

In interviews across the state, a growing number of Iowans — many of them women — said Klobuchar’s character and values were swaying their support.

“She feels like someone I’ve always known,” Maryfrances Evans, 57, said, flanked by her two daughters in Beaverdale. “We need to heal so very much. It’s like the wounds just keep coming, the fear just keeps coming — for their future and what we’re all going through as a country, I think she’s the one to bring that."

In Sioux City, Mike Esch, 72, said there was “a fire in her belly,” but she’s “respectful” and “realistic.”

“You never hear her, ever use any vile language or anything, like Trump does,” he said.

In Cedar Falls, Jill Mortenson, 71, said she planned to caucus for Klobuchar.

“It is time for us to try another approach. Obviously, the government’s not working smoothly," she said, adding that one reason she likes Klobuchar is that "she’s already tried and true."

"She’s got a good face in Washington, D.C., with a reputation of working with both sides,” Mortenson said.

At campaign stops over the weekend, Klobuchar argued that "decency" is the way to confront Trump's conduct, including the allegations at the heart of his impeachment: advancing a pressure campaign that included the withholding of millions in military aid in order to strong-arm Ukraine into launching an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, another possible 2020 rival. The Senate is expected to vote to acquit Trump of the charges Wednesday.

“The best and the biggest moments in this country’s history — as well as worst moments — have been about democracy, they’ve been about our Constitution, they’ve been about people standing up for decency,” she said in Beaverdale, before telling the story of Joseph Welch, an Iowa-born attorney, who confronted Sen. Joseph McCarthy at Senate hearings over his pursuit of Communists.

“He was the one who stood up and looked the senator in the eye and said: "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you no sense of decency?'” she said. “That is what this is about.”

Klobuchar contrasted her big picture talk with stories of her family’s humble roots — her grandfather was a miner, who used a coffee can to save for her father’s future — and kept the crowd chortling with jokes.

On Monday, Klobuchar did her caucus morning interviews from Washington, where she's back for closing arguments in the impeachment trial.

"I think we're going to have a strong showing tonight," she told NBC News' Lester Holt. "I think a lot of people didn’t think I'd make it through the snowstorm when I made my announcement and here I am, one of the top five candidates running for president."