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Elizabeth Warren faces debate challenge from moderate Amy Klobuchar

Analysis: Some Democrats want another option. The Minnesota senator's performance could get her a second look.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., at the Democratic presidential debate at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, on Tuesday.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., at the Democratic presidential debate at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, on Tuesday.Win McNamee / Getty Images

WESTERVILLE, Ohio — So much for Minnesota Nice.

Facing the prospect of elimination from the Democratic presidential primary picture, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota swiped aggressively at President Donald Trump and at liberal rivals in her own party at a debate here Tuesday night.

She accused Trump of putting himself above his country and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts of refusing to level with voters about raising taxes to finance a "Medicare for All" health insurance proposal.

In doing so, Klobuchar appeared intent on creating space in the field for at least one viable candidate who is less progressive than Warren and less moderate than former Vice President Joe Biden. She got help on that front from Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, who is ahead of her in polling and fundraising but is also looking for a way to electrify his campaign.

"Obviously, Klobuchar and Pete had standout moments," Democratic strategist Adrienne Elrod said after the debate. "They had an unplanned yet effective tag-teaming effort to defend moderate, middle-of-the-road policies."

For months, as Warren has risen steadily in the polls, frustrated moderate Democrats have wondered when one of the struggling candidates would take a bolder stand against her. Buttigieg had telegraphed his plan to engage with Warren before the debate, releasing an advertisement about her health insurance plan.

But it was Klobuchar who threw the most punches on Tuesday night — and landed some pretty punchy lines.

"At least Bernie is being honest here, and saying how he's going to pay for this and that taxes are going to go up," Klobuchar said of Sen. Bernie Sanders' explanation of the Medicare for All policy. "I'm sorry, Elizabeth, but you have not said that, and I think we owe the American people to tell them where we will send the invoice."

And while that may not differentiate her in terms of who has the best policy, the ability to communicate effectively is going to be a test for Democrats as they try to explain to voters why they think Trump should be impeached and removed from office — or simply turned out by voters in 2020.

Klobuchar talked about the two together at the outset of the debate — setting the stage for her edgier tone for the rest of the night.

"We have a constitutional duty to pursue this impeachment, but we also can stand up for America, because this president has not been putting America in front of his own personal interests," she said, adding that Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan doesn't fit with his foreign policy actions.

It may take some time to see whether this version of Klobuchar — not terribly different from what Democrats who have watched her in committee hearings on the Hill might have expected earlier in the campaign — gains more traction with voters. But compared with several other candidates who had their backs up against the wall to start the debate but faded by the end, there's little question that Klobuchar gave herself a chance to get a second look from voters.

She said afterward that she was pleased with the format, which featured a dozen candidates on stage at one time — and which allowed lower-ranked candidates like herself to participate.

"The more the merrier," she said, while denying that she was particularly aggressive. "I wasn't sharply attacking anyone. I was making my case about why I think I’m the best candidate."

Part of that is not being afraid to throw some shade — or elbows — at Trump and Warren.