Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar is one of 10 Democratic presidential candidates who will debate in Houston Thursday night after meeting the fundraising and polling requirements to qualify.
There are still 20 candidates in the race, so managing to qualify is no small feat, and the smaller debate roster is good news for Klobuchar. It means the debate will be broadcast all in one night, instead of split into two nights like the previous debates, and she will share the stage with all the front-runners in the race.
The three-hour debate, from 7 to 10 p.m., is an opportunity for Klobuchar to get the attention she needs to her to keep her presidential campaign alive, which is consistently polling at the back of the pack.
“The closer you get to the caucuses, the less time you have to make a move. Right about now, Senator Klobuchar is probably starting to feel a lot of pressure to start moving up in the polls in a significant way,” said Alex Conant, a veteran of Republican presidential campaigns, including former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s bid for the nomination in the 2012 race. “That is very hard to do, she is going to have few opportunities to do it, and her best opportunity are these upcoming debates.”
Klobuchar has already qualified for the fourth debate next month in Ohio, but a strong performance Thursday could not only mean a surge in the polls, it could also send key delegates, donors and new endorsements her way. Here are four things to watch for as she debates tonight:
Will Klobuchar have a viral moment?
At the last Democratic presidential debate in July, Elizabeth Warren stole the spotlight when she pushed back on criticism from former Maryland Congressman John Delaney, who said her policy proposals were unrealistic. She responded: “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”
The comment went viral, and since then, the Massachusetts senator has surged in the polls and her campaign is drawing big crowds at her campaign stops. Klobuchar's big viral moment — her questioning of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — came before the official launch of her campaign. She hasn’t had a breakthrough moment yet in any of the debates, but a viral comment on Thursday could help her.
Does she make a clear contrast with other Democrats in the race?
Until now, Klobuchar has mostly focused on drawing a contrast between herself and President Trump, but some think she also needs to start defining herself against her Democratic opponents. She has a chance to do that Thursday as they all share the same stage.
“A good performance would be both persuading some voters who have yet not been convinced that she would be the candidate who could defeat Trump, and that she would be a better choice on those grounds than some of the other candidates on the stage,” said Kathryn Pearson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota. “Making sharper contrasts with some of the front-runners.”
And while more progressive candidates like Warren are surging, a candidate like former Vice President Joe Biden is probably Klobuchar’s biggest hurdle to the nomination. Biden and Klobuchar are both targeting moderate Democrats and independent voters who could break from Trump and vote for them.
“A Joe Biden voter may look at Amy Klobuchar as a second choice,” Conant said. “She really needs to make that contrast and convince Joe Biden's voters why she's the better pick."
Does she go on the attack?
So far, Klobuchar has avoided being too critical of the front-runners in the race, even if some of the other Democratic candidates are going on the attack. On CNN over the weekend, Jake Tapper asked her about candidate and Ohio U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan’s comments that Biden doesn’t appear to have the energy that it takes to win the race. Klobuchar wouldn’t go there.
“I’m running my own campaign and I think one of the reasons we have these debates is so that people can make these assessments themselves,” she said. “The vice president has broad experience, we all know that, and I think that it’s just time. We’re going to have to see which candidate emerges.”
She’s avoided being critical in the debates as well, but that could change Thursday.
How much time will she get?
It won’t be easy for Klobuchar to go viral or establish a strong contrast between herself and the other candidates if she doesn’t get enough time to do so.
She struggled to get airtime in the first two debates and has avoided interrupting other candidates while they’re talking (it’s not very Minnesotan).
The third debate is hosted by ABC and Univision and will run three hours, considerably longer than the first two debates. That could give Klobuchar more opportunities to speak.