Nashua, N.H. – Sen. Amy Klobuchar drew more than 200 New Hampshire Democrats to a college gymnasium on Friday night, and she had the crowd cheering and laughing at a story that underlined the pitch she's making in her party's intensifying presidential contest.
"Right here in New Hampshire, last weekend," Klobuchar said, "we were at a meet-and-greet, and everyone had these little stickers on: 'I'm a Supreme Court voter.' 'I'm a climate-change voter.' And there was one guy that had no sticker on at all. And he came up and whispered in my ear — true story — 'I'm a Trump voter. I don't want anyone to know. But I'm not voting for him again.' If we want to win big, we have to build this coalition."
The enthusiastic reception in Nashua for Klobuchar's message of cross-party appeal capped a 12-day stretch that has been the best to date for the Minnesota Democrat's campaign for president. Now all Klobuchar needs is to do even better. And time is running short for a candidate who still distantly trails the race's front-runners.
For months, Klobuchar struggled for attention in a huge field of rivals. But, following a widely praised performance at the Oct. 15 Democratic debate, she's seen a spike in fundraising and national press coverage. In her most aggressive showing yet, she prodded several other candidates about some of their more hard-to-deliver promises, especially Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts on her support for Medicare for All.
"We're feeling a lot of momentum since the debate," Klobuchar said in a live TV interview later Friday night from outside a Democratic Party banquet in a Manchester restaurant.
In the days following the debate, Klobuchar tallied 3% in separate national polls. That's far below candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden, Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, but it was enough to qualify her for next month's Democratic debate in Georgia.
"She breathed new life into her campaign. She articulated what a lot of Democrats are still looking for, which is a more moderate, centrist view, especially on health care," said Maria Cardona, a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic strategist who has worked on presidential campaigns but is neutral in the current race. "But time is running out. She's got a ways to go to be considered a top-tier candidate."
More hurdles loom: In order to make the subsequent debate in December, Klobuchar must hit 4% in at least four national polls or 6% in two early-state polls. She's yet to reach 4% in any presidential poll, and failure to make the debate stage has already extinguished the campaigns of multiple Democratic contenders.
The good news for Klobuchar and other low-polling candidates is that, with just over three months until the nation-leading Iowa caucus, many party insiders see their presidential contest as fluid and unsettled.
"The truth is this race is still wide open, and Amy absolutely is still in the hunt," said Matt Bennett, another D.C. strategist with presidential campaign experience.
Biden, Warren and Sanders have all faced electability concerns. All three are over 70, and Warren and Sanders are arguably the two most liberal candidates in the field. That hands candidates like Klobuchar and fellow Midwesterner, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., an opportunity to position themselves as younger, more moderate options.
"Most people are just starting to pay attention to the race," said Joe Foster, a former New Hampshire attorney general and Senate majority leader who endorsed Klobuchar. In recent days, he said, friends and colleagues started asking about Klobuchar more frequently. A few told him that they donated to her campaign for the first time.
"A month ago, she wasn't getting that kind of attention," Foster said.
Southern New Hampshire was blazing with fall color by the end of last week, and the leaves falling off the trees won't grow back until well after the state's primary. It's on Feb. 11, eight days after the Iowa caucus. For Klobuchar to do well in New Hampshire, she first needs a strong showing in Minnesota's neighbor to the south, which she's traversed repeatedly in recent months trying to build up support.
"She's got to come out of Iowa looking viable," said Dante Scala, a political-science professor at the University of New Hampshire. "If she finishes behind Biden or Buttigieg in Iowa, it's harder to see how she comes into New Hampshire as the best younger or more moderate option."
Still, Scala said Klobuchar's profile has potential in the Granite State.
"The state is mostly white, you've got high levels of college education and especially college-educated women," he said. "You've got two U.S. senators, Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, who are moderately liberal Democrats with whom centrists and independents can be comfortable."
Unlike most states, New Hampshire allows independents to vote in party primaries. With no serious Republican primary next year, that leaves an opening for Democrats like Klobuchar.
"We have to see a fired-up base as critical to winning, but we also have to bring with us those independents and moderate Republicans that I've been talking about, and not be judgmental about that," Klobuchar said in Nashua, where she held a 50-minute town hall-style meeting on the campus of the local community college.
Bill Schwartz was at Klobuchar's Friday evening appearance. The 60-year-old transportation consultant was seeing her speak for the second time — "She's getting better," he said — and is leaning toward voting for her in the primary.
"I'm one of those people who want to see change, but I'm also worried about our party going too far left," Schwartz said.
Klobuchar is not the only candidate trying to capture moderate Democrats in the event that Biden's campaign loses steam. Buttigieg is selling a similar kind of Midwestern pragmatism, and he's significantly outperformed Klobuchar in polls and fundraising.
Buttigieg and Klobuchar both campaigned in New Hampshire at the end of last week. Earlier Friday, Buttigieg drew more than 500 people to his own town hall meeting at Colby-Sawyer College in New London. Several Democrats waiting in a long line to enter were not too familiar with Klobuchar.
"I have nothing at all negative to say about her but I haven't really been following her. There's so many people," said Barbara Pontier of Grantham, a 69-year-old graphic designer. Her favorites, she said, are Buttigieg and Warren.
Matt Russell, a 20-year-old junior at Colby-Sawyer, shared his perception of Klobuchar: "I believe she's more middle of the road, more conservative compared to a lot of the Democratic Party. I'm more left." Russell said his current top three are Tulsi Gabbard, Andrew Yang and Bernie Sanders.
Klobuchar's campaign has 20 paid staffers in New Hampshire (Buttigieg has about 70). It's smaller than her Iowa operation, and those are the only two early states where Klobuchar has staffed up. A campaign spokeswoman said they have a single paid staffer in South Carolina, which votes third. Nevada votes fourth.
Cardona, the Democratic strategist, said Klobuchar's campaign would be wise to start directing some of the money raised in its recent fundraising surge to start building a presence in South Carolina and Nevada. The more moderate Democratic voters in those respective states are more likely to be black and Latino, she said — two demographics that polls have shown are gravitating toward Biden.
"You can't only do well in Iowa and New Hampshire," Cardona said.