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Klobuchar's new delegate strategy focuses on going smaller

While other candidates are working to shore up support in states with large delegate hauls, Amy Klobuchar's campaign is trying a different approach.
Image: Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaks at a campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa, on Feb. 1, 2020.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaks at a campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa, on Feb. 1, 2020.Elijah Nouvelage / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

OKLAHOMA CITY — With the South Carolina primary just five days away, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is taking her presidential campaign to states that won't vote for at least another week.

And while other candidates are working to shore up support ahead of Super Tuesday on March 3 by making stops in bigger states with large delegate hauls, like California and Texas, Klobuchar's campaign has made a different calculation to try to stay viable — go small.

Over 36 hours early this week, Klobuchar held public events in her home state, Minnesota, where she's leading in polls, North Dakota (which doesn't caucus until March 10) and in the additional Super Tuesday states of Arkansas and Oklahoma.

"You are a Super Tuesday state," Klobuchar told the audience at her event here Sunday. "You're probably watching all these things happening in the other states and what you know is that only 3 percent of the delegates have been chosen."

After a surprise third-place finish in the New Hampshire primary, Klobuchar fell to a disappointing sixth-place finish in the Nevada caucuses Saturday.

In a move that her campaign hopes could provide a better chance to amass delegates to the national convention, Klobuchar is focusing on smaller states that other candidates visit less frequently — notably ones that are less liberal and less diverse.

In a memo shared with NBC News, Klobuchar campaign manager Justin Buoen detailed the campaign's strategy and path forward, announcing a $4.2 million ad buy for Super Tuesday.

"We will be making new investments on TV and digital in ​Colorado, California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Texas and Utah," Buoen said in the memo. "We are also making another six-figure investment on South Carolina TV, as Amy continues to ramp up efforts in the Palmetto state."

The campaign notes that Klobuchar is third in raw vote totals from the first three contests, although candidates are competing for delegates, not raw votes.

"Amy currently has 7 delegates, which puts her just one delegate behind Elizabeth Warren​," Buoen added in the memo. "And in the coming weeks, we expect Amy to continue to significantly grow her delegate count."

The campaign says it is planning an "aggressive schedule" in coming states, with an emphasis on Midwestern and Southern states like Arkansas, Alabama, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia, which are seen as friendlier territory for the moderate candidate.

The memo adds that the campaign will be "competing in key congressional districts where we can acquire delegates, in places like California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Utah, Texas and Maine."

And, of course, its expects to do well in Klobuchar's home state, Minnesota, on Super Tuesday.

Numbers from the 2016 Democratic primary exit polls give some insight into the campaign's thinking. The data show that 33 percent of the voters in Arkansas, for example, identified themselves as moderate. In Oklahoma, it was 36 percent.

"Klobuchar is not going to win the big states," Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said in an interview. "So she's doing the logical thing. Win some states and delegates, stay alive and hope in the end you become the compromise choice for president or vice president."

The campaign says it's a strategy born of necessity. "We have to approach this race differently," a senior staffer said. "We are never going to be competitive with two billionaires in the resource game."

Klobuchar's continued pitch is electability and how she could unify the Democratic Party, drawing direct contrasts with the current front-runner, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in the wake of Nevada's results.

"I think right now we are heading into one of those decisions for our political party, and that is who do we want to have as the candidate who heads up our ticket," Klobuchar said in Fargo, North Dakota.

Asked by reporters in Little Rock, Arkansas, about the benefit to Sanders if she and other candidates stay in the race, Klobuchar responded: "When you actually look at the vote, I am the third highest vote-getter in this field. So why would I get out? That's not even a close call for me.

"We have no idea who the best candidate is yet, so let's just hold our horses when we only have 3 percent of the people that delegates that have been chosen," she added. "That is an infinitesimal number."

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The decision to target states on Super Tuesday and beyond was driven by congressional district-level data, a senior staffer said, including in communities in which she tests well, coupled with places where she has existing relationships.

Still, Klobuchar told NBC News on the morning of the Nevada caucuses that she hadn't focused on the delegate math and how she could accumulate enough to remain a force in the nomination fight. "I just know I got my delegates," she said.

But Klobuchar's campaign was, and is still, playing catch-up to others with resources on the ground in coming states.

While it now has staffers on the ground in every Super Tuesday state, most of that staff was deployed only in the last week, and staffers continue to be reshuffled and re-assigned — the campaign's director of Hispanic outreach is now the deputy state director in California, and staffers originally in Iowa and New Hampshire have been deployed to states like Arkansas and North Carolina.