MASON CITY, Iowa – Tracy Smith is brimming with ardor for U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. “I adore her,” Smith said at an informal gathering of Democrats here last weekend.
“She’s smart, she’s got integrity, she’s well-spoken, she did a great job” quizzing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Smith said. “And she’s not my first choice for president.”
As Klobuchar mulls a White House run — she told CNN Tuesday that she’ll decide “shortly” — Iowans are sizing up their neighbor. They’ll get the first say on the race at caucuses on Feb. 3, 2020.
Former Vice President Joe Biden was the choice of almost a third of Iowa Democrats in a Des Moines Register/CNN poll taken Dec. 10-13. Klobuchar was favored by 3 percent. A Dec. 10-11 Focus on Rural America poll found that 9 percent of Iowa Democrats supported her.
Seven Democratic activists from the Mason City area who got together to talk politics over cheese, crackers and cookies all praised Klobuchar. But some have qualms about her viability as a nominee, and several said she’d be a better vice presidential candidate.
Klobuchar was elected to a third term in November. She took office in 2007 after serving as Hennepin County attorney. She has focused on some centrist, consumer-friendly issues in the Senate.
Columnist George Will wrote this week in the Washington Post that she’s “perhaps best equipped to send the current president packing.” She’s “liberal enough to soothe other liberals without annoying everyone else,” he wrote.
Smith, 66, prefers U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California from the roster of official and prospective Democratic candidates. “Her elbows are sharper, and we’ve got to get the black vote,” she explained.
Mark Suby, 71, said Klobuchar needs to become “a little bit controversial” to attract more national attention.
Marylu Barnekow, 79, thinks her party should choose a man to improve the odds of winning back working-class voters who voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Klobuchar “would make a wonderful vice presidential candidate,” she said. “But she’s so good, we need her in the Senate.”
Mason City is in Cerro Gordo County, which supported Democrats for president in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012. Trump beat Hillary Clinton here by 1,759 votes.
Last November, U.S. Rep. Steve King, a Republican, lost the county but was re-elected. Democrats won races for county treasurer and auditor.
Don O’Connor, the GOP nominee for county auditor, said he disagrees with Klobuchar’s stances on issues including abortion and gun rights. “But I’ve got nothing bad to say about Amy,” he said, calling her “probably the best” of the Democrats who are preparing to run for president.
Iowans expect to get to know presidential aspirants, and the Democrats who met here recalled Klobuchar’s visits in 2012, 2017 and last year.
State Rep. Sharon Steckman said the senator has a “genuineness” that she senses in Biden but didn’t see in Clinton. Klobuchar “speaks from the heart and she believes what she’s talking about … and she’s progressive without being pushy about it,” Steckman said. So far, she ranks Klobuchar first among female prospects.
Interest in Klobuchar is widening, she said, recounting a surprising recent encounter with a former supporter of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The friend told Steckman that she likes U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., but added that “Amy says it all in the same way but in a calm way that’s going to get it done. Not in a confrontational way.”
That low-key demeanor bothers some Iowans. “I have concerns about whether her skin is thick enough for how hard the battle will be, but maybe it is,” said JoAnn Hardy, 68, Cerro Gordo County Democratic Party chairwoman.
Klobuchar can’t win “because she’s too nice,” Smith said. “They’ll run right over her.” She likes the idea of a ticket led by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey with Klobuchar as running mate.
Jay Urdahl, 65, a county supervisor for 28 years before he was “Trumped out of office,” assessed Klobuchar’s qualifications this way: “She’s bright, she’s well-liked, she’s tough and she’s respected.” He thinks she needs a top-four finish in Iowa’s caucuses to move on to New Hampshire and beyond.
Suby prefers Warren, Harris and Klobuchar — in that order — and believes that women represent the party’s future. He likes Klobuchar’s views on election security, the environment and LGBTQ rights. “She’s a Paul Wellstone and Hubert Humphrey-type Democrat,” he said.
Urdahl called the Minnesota senator “a candidate for president who happens to be a woman” — much like Barack Obama ran not as a black man, but as a candidate who happened to be black.
Still, he added, she must “do something … to make herself stand out from her other female competitors.”
Alan Steckman, 71, a retired postmaster and Sharon Steckman’s husband, said Klobuchar must define her candidacy beyond gender. “Amy’s only challenge is to make sure that she’s not just strictly [seen as] a female,” he said.
There’s one woman in the presidential field who doesn’t have a chance with Sharon Steckman and Suby: U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who led the charge in calling for the resignation of U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota after he was accused of sexual misconduct in 2017.
That “left a sour taste in my mouth,” Suby said. Franken is “a genius,” Steckman said. “I really think it was a shame that Minnesota lost him.”