HUMBOLDT, Iowa – U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar walked into a small-town bar and grill here on Friday afternoon and told about 80 Democrats that they were witnessing a special moment.
"It is great to be here in 'county ninety-nine.' We saved the best for last, right?" Klobuchar told the crowd gathered at Miller's Landing, where she marked the conclusion of a political mission to campaign in each of the Hawkeye State's 99 counties.
Riding a fresh wave of national attention after an energetic debate performance last week, the Minnesota senator was also hoping to get a second look from voters in what has become a tumultuous race in the top tier of the Democratic primary contest.
More than most, Klobuchar's presidential ambitions depend on a strong finish in a state where she's risen slowly in polls but so far failed to crack the top four. In the race for nearly 11 months, she only recently broke into double-digits in a recent Iowa poll, registering at 10%.
The first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus is less than six weeks away, and Democrats here are preparing for their quadrennial turn under the national political spotlight, with a stream of contenders crisscrossing the state that has launched and ended presidential campaigns for decades.
One of them could be Klobuchar's, so she's racking up the miles.
Hoping to peak at the right moment, Klobuchar's latest drive across Iowa comes on top of a wave of national coverage and favorable reviews from pundits assessing the staying power of poll leaders Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Klobuchar's last debate performance included several pointed jabs at Buttigieg, a Midwestern rival who likely needs to show well in Iowa as much as Klobuchar.
Pronouncing their last encounter in Los Angeles "her best yet" performance in a debate, Politico proclaimed that Klobuchar has been "commanding a second look." CNN said in a recent report that she's "working on an upset."
In the days ahead of Christmas, Klobuchar swept through 27 Iowa counties. In Algona on Friday, she was interviewed on MSNBC. "Can you wave in the background?" she asked people standing nearby as she waited to go live.
"We call it a surge," Klobuchar said when asked about how she's doing in Iowa. "I'm getting closer and closer to where they are," she said of the leading Democrats.
The Klobuchar campaign said she tallied more than $1 million in donations in the 24 hours after the Dec. 19 debate, as well as two record days for securing "commit to caucus" pledges and signing up precinct captains. So far only Klobuchar and the other four poll leaders have qualified for the Iowa debate on Jan. 14, the last before the Feb. 3 caucuses.
After trailing for months, finishing fourth or better in Iowa would hand Klobuchar bragging rights as she heads to New Hampshire. After that state's Feb. 11 primary, the Democratic contest stops in Nevada and South Carolina, then rockets to March 3, Super Tuesday, when Democrats in 14 states will weigh in.
"We just keep exceeding expectations," Klobuchar said Friday, expressing optimism in an interview after the Humboldt stop. "We're doing better nationally. A lot of people haven't decided who they're supporting yet, and that all works to my advantage."
Traversing Iowa in recent days in a big green bus with "Amy for America" emblazoned on the front and sides, Klobuchar campaigned Friday in her 97th, 98th and 99th counties. Meanwhile her statewide campaign has grown to more than 80 paid staffers and 18 field offices. Pressing her local connections, she often mentions that her list of endorsements by current and former Iowa legislators exceeds those of any of her better-known Democratic rivals.
Polls show a fluid race in Iowa, and Klobuchar's team has been noting that past caucus winners — Democrat John Kerry in 2004, Republican Rick Santorum in 2012 — were low in the polls just weeks before their respective victories.
"She's in my top three," said Brody Bertram, a parks worker who came to see Klobuchar in Algona, in her 98th county. It was Bertram's first time seeing a Democratic candidate in person this cycle; he said his other favorites are Buttigieg and entrepreneur Andrew Yang. "I was a Bernie [Sanders] man in the last election," Bertram said. But lately, he said, he's been gravitating toward Klobuchar.
"She's the exact same age as my own mother," said Bertram, who's 33. "I like that Midwestern value she brings. In her I can see the way I think and feel about things."
Bertram said he probably wouldn't make up his mind until caucus night. Sensing opportunity in both Algona and Humboldt, Klobuchar nudged those gathered to make up their minds.
"I love hearing about being in your top three," Klobuchar said. "But you've got to commit. We're just a little more than a month away."
Betty Holtz, a retired dietitian, was in a crowd of about 100 that Klobuchar drew in Algona. She committed to caucusing for Klobuchar. "She's my top, my first," Holtz said. "I have issues with all the rest."
Klobuchar's typical stump speech runs 30 minutes or so, after which she often takes two or three questions. She has a cache of ready phrases to describe her own political success in Minnesota: "Rural, suburban and urban, I win in all of them" and "Every race, every place, every time" are two favorites.
Much of Klobuchar's speech is given over to wide-ranging criticisms of President Donald Trump; her criticisms of Democratic rivals have been confined to the debates and national press interviews. She touches on issues: trade and the farm economy, health care and prescription drug prices, gun control and voting rights.
She said next year's election will give Americans the chance to make "an economic check, a patriotism check, a values check, a decency check" on Trump.
Arguing that "democracy is truly at stake in this election," Klobuchar offered herself as a candidate capable of pulling off a big nationwide win.
"We better not screw this up," Klobuchar said. "We have the people with us on the issues, and we need someone at the top of the ticket who gets this, and brings people together."
The 99-county tour is an evergreen move in Iowa politics, dubbed "the full Grassley" for longtime Republican Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley. He's done it every year for nearly four decades and become much-imitated in the process (Klobuchar has often visited all 87 Minnesota counties within a year, though she didn't in 2019).
It's no guarantee of success. Santorum visited all 99 counties the year he pulled off an unexpected upset. But his support collapsed after that, and he left the race in April. In 2011, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann visited all 99 Iowa counties on her way to a sixth-place finish in the January 2012 Iowa caucus. She dropped out the next day.