Sen. Amy Klobuchar had as much to gain in the first Democratic presidential debate as any candidate in the crowded field.
Competing with nine other rivals all looking for ways to stand out, Klobuchar was the first to directly attack President Donald Trump. She swerved into policy detail on health care, immigration and the cost of college, and zinged one of her Democratic rivals as he bragged about his record on women’s reproductive rights.
But Trump was the major focus of Klobuchar’s critiques, and she pitched herself to Democratic voters as someone able to “win and beat Donald Trump.”
“I’ve won every place, every race and every time,” Klobuchar said. “I have won in the reddest of districts, ones that Donald Trump won by over 20 points. I can win in states like Wisconsin and Iowa and Michigan.”
The prime-time NBC audience offered the widest national exposure to date not just for Klobuchar, but most of her rivals. A second group of 10 candidates will debate Thursday night.
Klobuchar has yet to exceed low single digits in polls of the race. She got the second question in the debate following Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the night’s leading contender on the stage in Miami. Asked to comment on Warren’s raft of ambitious proposals, including free college tuition, Klobuchar offered some more modest proposals of her own.
She said she would like to be able to offer free college, then spelled out in brief detail her plans for how to make higher education more affordable.
“If billionaires can pay off their yachts, students can pay off their student loans,” Klobuchar said.
On health care, Klobuchar said she opposed Warren’s plan to phase out private insurance. She criticized Trump for not following through on a vow to bring down costs of pharmaceutical drugs.
“For the rest of America, that’s what we call all foam and no beer,” Klobuchar said. “We got nothing out of it.”
Klobuchar got perhaps her biggest breakout moment of the night with a quip at the expense of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. He boasted of being the only candidate who “passed a law protecting women’s reproductive rights.”
“I want to say there are three women here who fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose,” Klobuchar said to loud applause (besides Klobuchar and Warren, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii was on stage).
Klobuchar dodged the question of whether she’d support decriminalization of U.S. border crossings, advocated by several rivals, by saying she’s “happy to look at the proposal.”
“The president has gone backwards at a time when we need immigrants,” Klobuchar said.
Klobuchar offered her sharpest words for Trump on foreign policy, saying he should not have backed out of the Iran nuclear deal and that he conducts international diplomacy haphazardly.
“This president is literally, every single day, 10 minutes away from going to war,” Klobuchar said. “One tweet away from going to war. I don’t think we should conduct foreign policy in our bathrobe at five in the morning.”
On a few other topics, Klobuchar: supported gun buyback programs; said China was the greatest global economic threat to the U.S. but that the situation in Iran is currently most pressing on the foreign policy front; and said she could appeal to black and Latino voters by championing economic opportunity.
In all, she spoke for a little more than 8 minutes, fourth overall among the 10 Democratic contenders.
After the debate, Klobuchar told Chris Matthews on MSNBC that she wished she’d had more time to talk, mentioning the farm economy as one topic she wanted to cover.
“This is the first debate,” she said. “There are going to be many more.