WASHINGTON – Down in the polls, largely ignored on cable news, Sen. Amy Klobuchar has much to gain and little to lose in Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate.
The Minnesota senator has hung on in the race despite consistently minuscule poll numbers and lack of national buzz, especially compared to the more outspoken of the nine Democratic rivals she will join on a Houston debate stage. While Klobuchar struggled for airtime in the two previous debates, anticipation has built around the first face-off between former Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is vying along with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to represent the most progressive wing of the party.
For struggling candidates like Klobuchar, what’s left is a chance to be on the same stage on a single night with the race leaders, affording a new chance to make a much-needed impression on voters outside Minnesota.
“It’s going to be a big opportunity for me,” said Klobuchar, who rarely found herself the focus of attention in the first two Democratic debates.
Klobuchar has given no signal that she will fundamentally alter a campaign message built on a consensus-driven approach to politics and Midwestern electability. She has shown little appetite for brawling with her more liberal colleagues, even as she has questioned their Medicare for All and free college proposals. While she has escalated her criticism of President Donald Trump and Washington Republicans, Klobuchar continues to tout middle-of-the-road policy prescriptions that fall short of the sweeping change sought by many Democratic activists.
“We need a candidate for president who understands that what unites us as a country is greater than what divides us,” Klobuchar said last weekend in a speech at New Hampshire’s state Democratic convention. “I don’t want to be president for half of America. I want to be the president for all of America.”
Democratic operatives and political analysts aren’t putting much stock in Klobuchar’s chances. Several points recurred in interviews with race watchers: That Klobuchar’s best hope is if Biden’s standing drops drastically; and that at least two candidates on Thursday night’s stage, Klobuchar and Texas Rep. Julián Castro, stand a better chance of ending up as the Democratic candidate for vice president.
“It kind of feels like she is where she is, and unless something dramatic happens above her in the polls, then I think she may just be stuck where she is,” said Joel Payne, a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic operative who worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
Payne, who is neutral in the race, said he thinks it’s time for Klobuchar to get a little more aggressive with her Democratic rivals, which she largely avoided in the two previous debates. “That might mean going after Biden on a few things, that might mean getting a little more punchy with the Warren-Sanders crowd on what’s the best way to beat Trump,” he said.
But some Klobuchar fans say she should stick with her instincts.
“I don’t think her decision not to attack fellow Democrats is strategy — I just think that’s who she is,” said Tony Fratto, a Republican strategist and press aide to former President George W. Bush. “Voters may not be giving her a lot of attention right now, but she’ll get the wrong kind of attention if she tries to come off as something she’s not.”
Fratto is not the only right-leaning pundit to praise Klobuchar for her potential crossover appeal to independents and Republicans, like Fratto himself, who are disenchanted with Trump. Conservative columnist George Will and the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin have also been in that group.
“Amy Klobuchar would make it easy for many disgusted Republicans to cross party lines and vote for her,” Rubin wrote on Monday. “If you squinted just a tad, you really can see a plausible path to the nomination for her” if Biden underperforms in early-voting states Iowa or New Hampshire, she wrote.
That will depend on whether Klobuchar makes it that far. Her performance to date clinched her spots in Thursday night’s debate and at least one debate set for October. More debates are likely in November and December, and the Democratic National Committee is expected to raise its criteria again for a candidate to qualify.
Failure to make the September and October debates drove several underperforming candidates like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee from the race.
“Despite the big field, the race has largely been very stable,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, which is closely tracking the Democratic race. “She does have a platform at this next debate to make her case. But I just wonder if anyone who has demonstrated so little support this far in the race still has an opportunity to break out.”