What Minnesota campaign veterans will watch for in GOP presidential debate

A side-by-side of two politicians
MPR News asked Sen. Amy Klobuchar, (left) and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, two well-known Minnesotans who have been on that national debate stage, what they are thinking as the debate approaches.
Justin Sullivan | Getty and Charlie Neibergall | AP

As the candidates for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination prepare for their first debate this week in Milwaukee, Wis., two Minnesota veterans of presidential races are looking on.

Both Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty sought their party’s nominations, although neither ended up being the candidate.

Even though she’s a Democrat, Klobuchar said the Republican presidential debates are a must watch for her.

“I’m looking forward to these,” Klobuchar said, “I like watching debates. It does bring back the moment.”

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Democratic presidential candidates
Democratic presidential candidates (from left) former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Amy Klobuchar participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate on Feb, 7, 2020 at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.
Joe Raedle | Getty Images

Just four years ago Klobuchar was among the candidates competing for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Klobuchar said the challenge for her was trying to increase her profile without going negative. She was a lesser-known contender in the 2020 Democratic presidential contest, up against big political names such as Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. 

Klobuchar said debates can be defining moments because the candidates are all together rather than appearing at carefully planned individual events.

“So you’ve got to make sure you know exactly what you want to get out of that debate,” Klobuchar said.

One of Klobuchar’s big selling points four years ago was her record of winning elections with big margins, attracting support from not only Democrats but Republicans and Independents too.

“Yes, I have bold ideas but they are grounded in reality,” Klobuchar argued before a debate audience in July 2019 in Detroit, Mich. “And yes, I will make some simple promises: I can win this. I’m from the Midwest, and I have won every race, every place, every time.”

In the runup to the 2012 presidential election, two Republicans from Minnesota were on the debate stage. There was no camaraderie between Gov. Tim Pawlenty and U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann.

Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty
Left to right, Republican presidential candidates Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty pose for a photo before the start of the Iowa GOP/Fox News Debate at the CY Stephens Auditorium in Ames, Iowa, on Aug. 11, 2011.
Charlie Neibergall | AP

During a debate in Ames, Iowa, Pawlenty did not mince words as he called Bachmann’s credentials into question.

“It’s an undisputable fact that in Congress her record of accomplishment and results is nonexistent,” said Pawlenty.

Bachmann fired back.

“I fought when others ran, and I fought and I led against increasing the debt ceiling,” said Bachmann.

Bachmann outlasted Pawlenty in that battle but abruptly ended her campaign after a poor showing in the Iowa caucuses.

Pawlenty said he ran for president because he thought he had a shot at winning. But he said many different motives drive presidential candidates.

A man poses for a portrait
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty says he hopes the GOP presidential nomination debates will narrow the field of candidates which he says would reduce the chances of former President Donald Trump winning the party's nod.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

“People might be saying, ‘even if I don't make it, this is the way you get considered for vice president,’” Pawlenty said, adding that others just want to increase their profile and take advantage of opportunities afforded to well-known politicians.

Unlike Klobuchar, Pawlenty said he’ll be on the lookout for highlights from the forums rather than watching them live. He said that’s how most people get information about debates, which puts a lot of pressure on candidates to do something to stand out, especially lesser-known White House hopefuls.

“The viral moment, whether it be ultimately reproduced on mainstream media or in social media, becomes critically important,” Pawlenty said.

Social media and fake news loom larger now than they did when Pawlenty ran more than a decade ago.

Pawlenty and Klobuchar also said there are increasing security concerns for presidential candidates.

“Politics has gotten more agitated. People have become more agitated, and we’ve seen manifestations of the possibility of political activity going from just demonstrations to violence, and that’s a real problem,” said Pawlenty.

 Klobuchar noted the increase in attacks on elected officials on both sides of the aisle.

“I’ve just been trying my hardest to get beyond that. I did when I ran for president. I do now. I would hope you’ll have some people on that Republican debate stage, trying to do the same thing. And it may surprise you who does it,” Klobuchar said.

Pawlenty said he has hopes for the GOP debates. He said his party needs a presidential candidate other than former President Donald Trump.

“I hope the field consolidates pretty quickly,” Pawlenty said. “Because if it is Trump versus seven or eight people and they all split the vote, that’s going to put him in a strong position.”