The first two times Amy Klobuchar's famous father was arrested on a charge of drunken driving, she was just a kid. When it happened again, in 1993, she was an adult and a successful attorney. This time she could do something for him.

They met with an addiction counselor just days after Jim Klobuchar, a columnist for the Star Tribune, had prostate surgery. As he lay on a couch, she built her case: She described the birthdays he had missed, how she had searched for him when he disappeared from her college graduation, the times she had taken away his car keys, the damage that he had inflicted on his marriage.

Then she walked over and hugged him. "I love you, Dad," he recalls her saying. "But you have to change."

The determination she showed then is at full throttle now in the political fight of her life, a nationally watched U.S. Senate race.

She is facing a barrage of Republican ads attacking her eight-year record as Hennepin County's chief prosecutor, and juggling competing roles as a high-profile Democratic candidate and a mom worried about getting her 11-year-old daughter home to do schoolwork. Nevertheless, Klobuchar, 46, is hurtling down the final stretch of the campaign well ahead in polls.

But then, she's had her eye on the job, or one like it, for as long as she can remember.

 

A baby-sitting parade

Klobuchar jokes that her political career started the summer she was 11. She and two friends formed a baby-sitting club. Every afternoon they rounded up kids and paraded them through their Plymouth neighborhood to one of their homes.

Midway through the summer, Klobuchar came up with an idea for spending the money they had earned: Go to Kansas City on a Greyhound bus. The obstacle? Their mothers.

Klobuchar was the lead organizer in the campaign to persuade them. Over a formal lunch with typed menus and a main course of chicken salad in cantaloupe, the girls made their case. It worked.

"That was the precursor of all my organized activities to try to convince people," Klobuchar said.

At Wayzata High School she progressed to fundraising. As a junior she ran the campaign to raise money for the senior prom, selling so many Life Savers lollipops that the event was held at a fancy downtown hotel.

"I liked to organize things," she said. "I got people together to do things, sometimes for fun, but always for a purpose."

Klobuchar's success in high school came in spite of her family's painfully public problems. When her parents were divorced during her first year in high school, Jim Klobuchar wrote about it in a column. And each time he was arrested for driving while drunk, the newspaper published a story.

"She was really sad," said her friend Amy Scherber, who now lives in New York. And Klobuchar's pain was amplified because "the whole world was reading about it, too," Scherber said.

Klobuchar said her father's addiction and its effect on the family was the dark thread that ran through her childhood. She remembers looking out the window with her mother at Christmas, hoping he would come home so they could open presents. "That's how alcoholics are," she said. "They let people down."

But Jim Klobuchar's fame, and frequent absences from her life, were also at the root of her drive to succeed.

"She wanted to prove herself to him," Scherber said.

 

Off to the Ivy League

After high school, Klobuchar went to Yale University. She said she chose it because it was Ivy League and wasn't in Minnesota.

"I wanted to go to a place where people couldn't spell my name," she said. A place where she could succeed outside of her father's shadow.

At Yale she was one of the few Midwesterners. At first that made her feel like an outsider. Someone pinned a picture of a tractor on her door. She had never heard of the game of squash. "I thought it was a vegetable," she said.

But she set her sights high: a political science major and summer internships with Minnesota Attorney General Warren Spannaus and Vice President Walter Mondale. Her senior thesis became a 300-page book on the political history of the Metrodome.

After Yale, Klobuchar went to the University of Chicago Law School on a scholarship, and in 1985 she came home to a job at the firm of Dorsey & Whitney. Then she began immersing herself in DFL politics. She joined the Wednesday Night Democrats, a club of young politicos that invited public officials to join them for a beer and friendly grilling about issues of the day.

"We were audacious," said former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug, a club regular who is now the attorney for Klobuchar's campaign. "We thought if public officials wanted to meet some future leaders, they can come see us."

Klobuchar joined DFL committees and helped with campaigns. But she never lost sight of her own ambitions. "She was always thinking of where to live, based on what office she could run for," Scherber said.

Even Klobuchar's wedding to attorney John Bessler in 1993 had a political theme. The reception was at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute. Guests wandered through the permanent exhibit chronicling the life of one of Minnesota's most beloved Democratic leaders.

The year she was married, her father was arrested for the third time. He gives her much of the credit for his decision to stop drinking. She's proud of him, she said, but sees his choice with the unsentimental eyes of a prosecutor. It was the threat of jail time that scared him sober, she said. And years later, when she was Hennepin County attorney, that's what inspired her to fight to increase the penalty for drunken driving.

 

Baby has a problem

Klobuchar's daughter, Abigail, was born in 1995, during a brief time when health plans allowed new mothers only a 24-hour hospital stay. It was a policy derided by its many critics as drive-by delivery.

Within hours of Abigail's birth, her parents knew the baby had a serious problem. She couldn't swallow. Every time she nursed, the milk bubbled up through her nose. Klobuchar had to leave the hospital; the baby stayed behind. She rented a room nearby and shuttled back and forth. Eventually, doctors put a tube in the infant's stomach and sent her home.

The next legislative session, Klobuchar was the primary witness for a proposed law to force health plans to allow new mothers to stay in the hospital for 48 hours. When insurance lobbyists tried to delay the law, she packed the hearing with pregnant women and their children.

"It was clear to the insurance companies that ... they were up against a more powerful force," said former DFL legislator Joe Opatz, who sponsored the bill. It passed easily.

Abigail, now a healthy 11-year-old, is a fixture on the campaign trail with her mom.

Klobuchar says she never had a plan to run for a particular public office. But Hennepin County attorney, with its mix of criminal and civil work and its community effect, intrigued her.

When the job opened in 1997, her professional experience consisted mostly of representing telecommunications companies. She also faced a formidable opponent: Republican Sheryl Ramstad, a former district judge and assistant U.S. attorney.

It was a heated campaign. Ramstad often pointed out that she was prosecuting cases while Klobuchar was still in high school, and that Klobuchar had almost no experience in criminal law.

During one testy debate, Ramstad said Klobuchar was like Klobuchar's relatives - a street fighter from the Iron Range.

Klobuchar smiled and thanked her, then went on to win the election by less than 1 percent of the vote. She also had proved to the DFL that she had the mettle to run for statewide office.

"She will do what it takes to be successful," said Jeff Blodgett, who worked on her first campaign and is now executive director of Wellstone Action, a nonprofit group.

But drive is not always enough to win an election. Some political analysts say that Klobuchar also shows a balance in personality that voters seem to require more from women than men: She's perceived as warm but tough.

"In our society it's still a problem for women to come across on both those dimensions," said Steven Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis who follows Minnesota politics. "She's overcome that better than most."

Some of that is because she is both a mom and a politician. In that tug of war, the politician usually wins. But not always. One morning in August, Klobuchar stopped before a meeting with police chiefs to call her daughter. The candidate was worried about how she was doing because her pet hamster had just died.

"I felt so guilty. I promised to take her school shopping," Klobuchar said as she dialed. "When am I going to do that?"

They went the following Saturday, after a day of campaigning at the State Fair. It was Abigail's seventh visit to the fair that week with her mom. But that day she also got a few hours with her at the Mall of America.

 

An upward opening

When Sen. Mark Dayton announced in 2005 that he would not seek reelection, Klobuchar wanted to run. But she knew that could be perceived to be a stretch for her. She figured she could more easily win the DFL endorsement for attorney general or secretary of state.

But the rare opportunity, an open Senate seat, tugged at her. About a week after Dayton's announcement, Klobuchar and her husband went ice fishing with Cass County Attorney Earl Maus and his wife. It was a sunny Saturday during Eel Pout Days in February. On the drive up to Walker, Klobuchar talked on the phone with friends and advisers, who warned her that there were probably insurmountable obstacles to winning the DFL endorsement.

For one, they said, she couldn't compete financially with attorney Mike Ciresi, a multimillionaire widely expected at the time to run.

It was a festive day on the lake. The two couples sat around the hole in the Maus fish house with their rods as Klobuchar mulled her options. People are saying that running will take too much money, she told them. But, she added, she thought she would do a good job in the Senate.

"Then Maus said, `Well, I think you should go for it then, don't you?'" Klobuchar recalled. That's all it took. "I said, 'yeah, I think I will.'"