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CLEAR LAKE, Iowa – U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar followed the well-worn political trail to Iowa Friday, firing up Democrats feasting on chicken wings and anti-GOP rhetoric and waving off presidential aspirations with a smile and a nod to Hillary Clinton.
“I love my job now, I love being senator from Minnesota, that’s what I’m focused on right now,” Klobuchar said during a sojourn south, where she gave the keynote address to the North Iowa Democrats Wing Ding at the Surf Ballroom. It’s a venue credited with launching then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2007.
“It’s nice to be on the list,” she said of her name occasionally appearing among names of Democrats to succeed Obama. She also added that she believes she has shown her ability to appeal to independent voters in her two Senate elections, including a 34-point margin of victory in November. But she said she would welcome the candidacy of Clinton, who is seen by many Democrats here as a clear 2016 front-runner — if she runs.
“I like Hillary Clinton a lot — she’d be great,” Klobuchar said. “I know there are others who are interested as well, so we’ll have to see who runs.”
The 400-some Democratic activists from northern Iowa heard the second-term senator quote Minnesota icon Hubert Humphrey, saying “If we are unwilling to make history, others will make it for us.”
She introduced herself to the state whose precinct caucuses — two years and five months from now — will kick off the presidential season as someone who is still inspired by her iron-miner grandfather. She said she was initially motivated to political activity to keep new mothers from being forced to leave the hospital after a short stay, and that she has tried in six-plus years in the Senate to work with Republicans when she can.
But she blamed the Republican-controlled House for blocking action on a new farm bill, immigration reform and other important issues and burying them in their desk drawer. “The people of this country want the keys to that desk drawer,” she said. “Obstructionism and extremism are holding us back.”
She laid out an “innovation agenda” in which the nation would regain its manufacturing and brainpower edge, and offered a few mild Iowa and Minnesota jokes — how Iowans consider Clear Lake to be an example of “surf,” and how Minnesota mothers strive for their children to grow up to be vice president.
Klobuchar was in Iowa for the speech and two smaller events: a visit to a farm near here on Friday and a fundraiser in the Cedar Rapids area on Saturday. She did not shy away from the national spotlight but focused her political energies on helping a Democratic Iowa congressman, Bruce Braley, who is seeking to replace the retiring Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin next year.
“I think a lot of work I’m doing in the Senate obviously has national implications,” she told reporters. She pointed out her work on trying to pass a new farm bill, which she believes will particularly help young farmers get started. She told Iowa reporters that she was impressed with the state’s low unemployment rate and its work on alternative energy.
Klobuchar spoke to a full auditorium with paintings of rock-n-rollers Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson — the trio killed in a plane crash after a Surf Ballroom concert in 1959 — looking down on the audience.
Her speech was well received, but several in the audience have their eyes on a different candidate.
Doug Langford of nearby Forest City wore a “Team Hillary” T-shirt left over from 2008. “I think it would be a slam-dunk for her nationally,” Langford said of Clinton’s ability to wrap up the Democratic nomination. As for Klobuchar, Langford said he admired her work but does not believe the Minnesota senator has the national and international profile and experience Clinton brings to the ticket.
Field of opportunities
Less than two years after two other Minnesotans, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, flamed out in the 2011-12 GOP Iowa caucus campaign, Klobuchar became the first of the Democratic presidential “possibles” to touch down in Iowa’s “fields of opportunities.”
Klobuchar, 53, barely into her second six-year term, is stepping out on the national stage with weekend TV interview appearances and, more recently, speeches to Democratic activists in Ohio, North and South Dakota, Wisconsin and Indiana. She invoked a Sarah Palin-like line to describe why she came south.
“I can see Iowa from my porch,” Klobuchar likes to say.
Gary Gelner, Democratic county chair in Iowa’s Hancock County and a member of the Wing Ding organizing committee, said Klobuchar’s appearance stirred up interest in the Wing Ding. “When we got Amy, everything went viral in 24 hours,” he said. “It showed up in the London Times. … The headlines are, ‘She’s getting ready to run.’ ”
Gelner said he puts Klobuchar in the category of “Young Turks” who will gradually take over Democratic leadership positions. “You can’t have these old buzzards in Congress in their 80s and 90s ruling the roost,” he said. “She’s among the up-and-comers.”
Dean Gerth, a Democratic official in Cerro Gordo County and an organizer of the Wing Ding dinner, said Klobuchar made a strong impression during her visit to Iowa delegates to the Democratic National Convention last year. If Clinton doesn’t run, he puts Klobuchar on the presidential list.
“She’s very effective as a leader,” he said. “She’s well spoken, intelligent and smart. I think she and her staff are well aware, the North Iowa Wing Ding is one of the places that helped get Barack Obama into the White House.”
Larry Jacobs, political science professor at the University of Minnesota, sees Klobuchar’s visit as a low-risk, low-cost political play that could help in a number of ways.
“I think what she’s doing is kind of getting her feet wet in a presidential bid, floating her name for the vice presidential sweepstakes, and boosting her credentials for Senate leadership,” he said. “All it is costing her is a plane ticket.”