Washington – A substantive approach, a blunt political argument and a memorable one-liner in the first Democratic presidential debate has kept Sen. Amy Klobuchar in the mix as the contest hurtles forward.
The candidate from Minnesota, selling Midwestern electability and concrete progress in Washington, won positive but not effusive reviews from pundits for her Miami performance. “@amyklobuchar has good night,” Jennifer Palmieri, formerly a top media adviser to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, posted on Twitter.
With the Democratic field still packed, attention from the national media and good impressions among party insiders are vital to sustaining momentum. Klobuchar, who remains in low single digits in national polls, fell short of the kind of breakout moment achieved by rivals like Kamala Harris of California and Julián Castro of Texas. And a muddled answer to a question about black and Latino voters points to a continuing challenge for her candidacy.
Klobuchar hit President Donald Trump early and often in Wednesday night’s opening debate, a smart play for Democratic base voters. And her rebuke to a male rival for hogging credit for reproductive rights gave her a bit of viral buzz.
Given the crowded stage, Klobuchar, like most of the candidates, had only a few minutes to make an impression before a national audience. In all, Klobuchar spoke for just over eight minutes in the first debate Wednesday night, putting her fifth out of 10 for the amount of time she had the floor.
“Coming from a small state, she’s got an uphill battle,” said Minnesota U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, who has endorsed her.
Klobuchar’s most direct appeal to Democratic voters came at the end of the two-hour debate, in her closing statement: “Three things to know about me. First, I listen to people and that’s how I get things done,” she said, touting her legislative record.
Second, Klobuchar said, “I’m someone that can win and beat Donald Trump. I have won every race, every place and every time. I have won in the reddest of districts, ones that Donald Trump won by over 20 points.” In a reminder of the Midwestern battleground that helped put Trump over the top in 2016, Klobuchar vowed to win back states like Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan.
Third, she said, “I am not the establishment party candidate. ... I am the one that doesn’t have a political machine, that doesn’t come from money.”
Klobuchar jabbed at Washington Gov. Jay Inslee after he claimed to have done the most of any candidate to protect women’s reproductive rights, noting she and two other women on stage have also done their share. Mother Jones Magazine called it “the perfect clapback.”
Another memorable line was when Klobuchar called Trump’s promises to lower prescription drug prices “all foam and no beer,” although Politico described the remark as “seemingly canned.”
In the debate’s second half, Klobuchar was asked how she could appeal to the black and Latino voters so important to the Democratic coalition. She first spoke broadly about working for economic opportunity and wanting to achieve universal child care, better retirement programs and public schools, and more job opportunities.
Then Klobuchar mentioned Trump — and for her only time in the debate, not in a negative way.
“In fact, Donald Trump, one of the first bills he signed of the 34 he signed where I was lead Democrat — OK, that’s a first up here — was one that was about that, making sure minority community members could share in those jobs,” Klobuchar said. She then noted that black women make 61 cents on the dollar compared to white men before calling for better voting protections and “the next step” in criminal justice reform.
Some party insiders saw a missed opportunity to address minority outreach and the controversy surrounding law enforcement in the black community.
“Someone needs to help Amy Klobuchar talk about racial disparities and voter engagement of key Democratic communities,” Will Hailer, a D.C.-based Democratic consultant who has worked with several Minnesota politicians, wrote on Twitter.
In a follow-up e-mail, Hailer stressed that while Klobuchar “looked Presidential” in the debate, “her answer on that question didn’t match her work in the community.”
Minnesota lacks the large constituencies of color that comprise Democratic coalitions in the home states of many of Klobuchar’s rivals. Party leaders have identified it as a possible hazard to her long-term chances.
Klobuchar is not the only Democrat to tangle with such thorny questions: former Vice President Joe Biden and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., also faced debate questions and criticism about race. Klobuchar had plans to speak Saturday at a Chicago convention of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, founded by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
“I think she is as enlightened about racial justice as anyone I know, and I think she cares deeply about racial justice,” said Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison.
But neither Ellison nor the state’s other most prominent politician of color, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, have endorsed Klobuchar’s bid. Most of the state’s other prominent Democrats have endorsed Klobuchar. On Friday, Ellison endorsed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a close ideological ally he also supported in 2016. Omar has not endorsed anyone.
National and early state polls in the coming days will show whether Klobuchar’s debate performance pays off with a 3% or 4% showing, instead of what’s become a typical 1% or 2%. Another important measure will be the upcoming release of second-quarter fundraising numbers. Klobuchar raised $5.2 million in her campaign’s first seven weeks but trailed many of the leading contenders.
Klobuchar has also qualified for the next Democratic debates in Detroit at the end of July.