'Rev it up': Back at home, Klobuchar is told to get tough

A woman waves to a crowd as she stands on a white porch.
U.S. Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar speaks to a crowd at the Minnesota State Fair during the opening day of the Minnesota State Fair on Thursday, Aug 22, 2019.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

When Amy Klobuchar wends her way through the hordes of people at the Minnesota State Fair, it's clear she's on her home turf. She stops to greet familiar faces at the Farmers' Union. She poses for photos with metal workers at the AFL-CIO building. A young girl approaches to give her a gift — a crop-art portrait of the three-term senator created with flaxseed, alfalfa and beans and titled "Amy Cropuchar."

From the day she entered the 2020 presidential race with a speech delivered in a snowstorm, such affection — the key to her success in Minnesota — has been the core of Klobuchar's claim on the Democratic Party nomination. She touts her record of winning in Minnesota, even in areas held by Republicans, by reaching out to voters and working with GOP lawmakers to get things done. It's a formula she says she can replicate in states like Wisconsin and Michigan that Democrats likely need to win to defeat President Trump.

But even some of her biggest fans at home aren't buying the case. As they milled about for a chance to snap a picture or shake Klobuchar's hand, many of the people who know her best said it's been disappointing to see her struggle — Klobuchar has been polling from 1 percent to 4 percent — in a crowded primary field. Now that she's qualified for the next debate, they wished there was something more she could do to grab the spotlight, increase her name recognition and convince voters that she can win. They, ever so nicely, counted themselves among the doubters.

"I love Amy. And I think she'd be a great president," said Merilee Vados, 64, of Blaine, a Minneapolis suburb. "But I think you've got to really rip Trump apart. You've gotta dish it out."

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"We're afraid she's not going to be able to beat him," added Vada Rudolph, 74, of Circle Pines, a neighboring suburb.

A candidate's home-state voters can turn on them when they seek the national spotlight, either sensing neglect or resenting the ambition. But Minnesotans have been more loyal. They still proudly claim the state's best-known presidential campaign losers — former Vice Presidents Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey. And even if some may have doubts, Minnesotans are throwing their money behind Klobuchar, giving her more than $10 million for the race — millions more than they've donated to any other campaign.

Perhaps that's why Klobuchar's recent trip to the fair — billed as the Great Minnesota Get-together — was a homecoming tinged with explanation and a defense. The senator at times sounded like a college student explaining that the C on the midterm biology exam would be a B if you graded on a curve and why all that matters is the final exam anyway.

"You know this in Minnesota — I will win," she shouted to a crowd of several hundred people gathered at her campaign booth. She noted she's one of roughly a dozen candidates to qualify for the next two primary debates. Or, as the longtime Minnesota Vikings fan put it, "I made the playoffs."

Rudolph and others skeptical of Klobuchar's presidential bid believe one major challenge she's facing is sexism — that the nation won't vote for a woman as president. They also blamed early news reports — which they dismissed as unfair — that Klobuchar mistreated her staff.

Disa Selvog, 37, who waited in line to take a photograph with the senator after her speech, said she likes Klobuchar because she's a woman and because her policies, such as on health care, are "more realistic" than the policies of some of the other candidates who are pushing "Medicare for All."

But when it comes down to it, Selvog said she will "probably, sadly" support former Vice President Joe Biden to be the Democratic nominee because she thinks he's the best bet to defeat Trump.

"I love Amy, but I think he's got such a national name he'd be more likely," Selvog said. "We know her here, and we know how great she is. But other people don't."

Mondale counts himself among those who want to see Klobuchar "rev it up." He said he spent time recently with Klobuchar, who interned in his office decades ago and remains a friend. Mondale said Klobuchar should start challenging her Democratic opponents on how they'll accomplish plans such as free college and how they'll pay for them.

"She's got to somehow break through," he said. "I think she knows that. I know she knows that."

Klobuchar is starting to get competition in her own state, which will hold its primary along with several other states on March 3, a date known as "Super Tuesday."

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, one of the most progressive candidates in the presidential field, held a rally Monday in St. Paul that drew thousands. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who defeated Hillary Clinton in Minnesota's 2016 Democratic primary, returned to the state Saturday for a radio interview before a live audience at the state fair and an evening fundraiser. Both candidates have built national reputations by staking out clear, liberal positions and promising massive change.

Klobuchar made no direct mention of her rivals during her visit to the fair. But after talking with voters in the Dairy Building, home to the fair's famed butter cow sculptures, she took a clear, if very Minnesotan, dig at the liberal candidates in the race.

"It's not just about how many people you can get to show up at a rally. It's about bringing new people in," she said.

Klobuchar largely pins her troubles on the crowded field of about 20 candidates, down from roughly two dozen as some dropped out in recent weeks. A smaller field will help her message be heard, she said in an interview. Like a handful of other white moderates in the race from purple or red states, her message is about electability. Minnesota, once a Democratic stronghold in presidential politics, only narrowly voted for Clinton over Trump in 2016. Two years later, Klobuchar won the state handily, giving some weight to her claim to be a Democrat whom Trump voters will support.

"I think it is so important right now to have someone leading the ticket that sends that strong, strong signal that she is going to govern not just for party, not like she's running for the head of the DNC, but for our nation," she said. "When I see that debate stage, I think, 'OK, I'm going to win this primary. But I'm also going to talk to some of those voters that voted for Donald Trump that will vote for me if I'm in charge of that ticket.'"

Klobuchar says Midwesterners don't like Trump's "whining." They want an executive who can get it done, she said.

That's what some Minnesota residents want the rest of the country to hear more about, said Suzie Sime, a supporter from Eden Prairie, a Minneapolis suburb.

"She's from the Midwest. I believe she's very kind and the Minnesota nice and all that stuff. But she also has a backbone, and she's not going to back down. She's not some namby-pamby — she stands for things," she said.