PANORA, Iowa — Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., was in New York, finishing a speech to nearly 26,000 people. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, was on TV, carrying on an unexpected feud with the Democrats' last nominee for president. And Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., was getting a standing ovation from rural Democrats, an hour west of Des Moines, before sharing a story about a man she'd met in New Hampshire.
"He goes up to me, and he whispers: 'Don't say anything, but I voted for Donald Trump,' " Klobuchar recalled. "So I go: 'Don't worry, I won't say anything.' And he goes: 'I'm not going to do it again!' "
Seventy put-upon rural Democrats laughed and burst into applause. "I don't want to overemphasize this," Klobuchar said. "You know a lot of those Trump voters aren't going to change. But there are a segment of them, nearly 10 percent of them, who voted for Barack Obama, then voted for Donald Trump. There are a bunch of them in this state. There are a bunch of counties in this state that voted for Obama, then for Trump. We don't want to leave those counties behind."
Klobuchar, who struggled for attention in the Democratic primary, says this week's debate helped her catch on at exactly the right time. Her town halls are crowded, with staffers running to get more chairs to pack breweries or event centers. She leads the field in local endorsements, especially state legislators, "with more to come," she says. She kicked off her bus tour with the support of Andy McKean, a Republican state legislator who bolted his party six months ago and who pronounced Klobuchar the kind of Democrat who could unite America again.
"If you want to peak in this race," she said after a stop in Waterloo, "you want to peak now, instead of six months before [the caucuses]."
A few other candidates still draw larger crowds, but Klobuchar is going for a particular kind of caucus-goer: the loyal Democrat who wants to win back those mysterious Trump voters. In interviews around the events, Klobuchar-curious voters tended to list her alongside South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.; and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as the candidates who could have the longest reach, because they were not seen as too left-wing. Craig Hinderaker, a 71-year-old farmer who saw Klobuchar in Panora (population 1,069), said he'd committed to her months earlier after becoming convinced that she had centrist appeal and real campaign skills.
"Biden was my top choice, but he's been dropping," Hinderaker said. "Just too many errors."
Klobuchar, who began running TV and digital ads in Iowa only this month, had methodically introduced herself to the state as the electable, relatable neighbor who Republicans had already learned to love. On the campaign's official bingo cards, there are squares for "bio diesel plant" and "breakfast pizza," as well as the more evasive "bridge that crosses over the river of our divide." Her stump speeches and town hall answers are peppered with references to Republican colleagues - "Lindsey Graham, who took up my bill with John McCain," or "James Lankford, a very conservative senator from Oklahoma" - who have helped her pass bills. Without mentioning Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., she describes the sort of Democrats she says wouldn't win in 2020.
"People don't really want the loudest voice in the room," Klobuchar said in Mason City. "They want a tough voice in the room, which I think I showed I could do in the debate. They want someone that's going to tell them the truth - look them in the eye and tell them the truth - and not make promises that they can't keep. They want someone who understands that there's a difference between a plan and a pipe dream, and that not everything can be free."
The message, and its candidate, are not at this point dominant in Iowa. Warren and Sanders continue to get the largest crowds in the 18-candidate field, followed by Buttigieg, and "Medicare-for-all" remains popular with likely caucusgoers. Klobuchar has not yet qualified for November's debate, hosted by The Washington Post and MSNBC, either; candidates need to poll at 3 percent or higher in at least four DNC-approved polls or 5 percent in two polls of early states. She has hit that mark in one national poll.
But Democratic voters, unlike the president's supporters, worry about the ideas that might lose them votes and consume media that feeds that worry. Politically engaged Republicans have "Fox and Friends," a morning show where the president can do no wrong; Democrats have "Morning Joe," hosted by a former Republican congressman, with a rotation of anti-Trump and anti-left-wing panelists, and "Real Time with Bill Maher," whose host frequently warns Democrats that they'll lose if they nominate a left-wing candidate. (Maher hosted Klobuchar last week.)
Kathy Bowman, 70, who saw Klobuchar speak in Davenport on Friday, quoted The New York Times columnist David Brooks to make a case for the senator from Minnesota. Brooks had just argued for anti-Trump conservatives to vote for any Democrat, while worrying that Warren would present a choice between "a bad option and a suicidal one." Democrats, Brooks wrote, could still pick someone less offensive to Republicans and win big.
"I agree with that," she said. "And I think that a more moderate voice, like Amy or Pete, would be stronger contenders for winning. And they would be more effective at governing."
Klobuchar has embraced that theory of politics. The bigger the presidential candidate's appeal, the bigger the coattails; the bigger the coattails, the more likely that Democrats could "take back the Senate," she says. At media gaggles between bus stops, she scoffed at only two questions - one asking her to weigh in on the argument between Gabbard and Hillary Clinton and another asking why she had won a second term by 35 points but a third term by only 24 points.
"That's a lot!" she said, laughing at the audacity of the question. "I always have won by huge margins. Mostly I think what's important is that I won 42 of the counties that Donald Trump won."
Every Democrat argues that he or she can win back Trump voters; Klobuchar is the only candidate with receipts. While Sanders and Warren argue that they could change the electorate through organizing - Sanders, in particular, has focused on registering working-class nonvoters - Klobuchar says the people who voted in 2018 are ready for the right Democrat.
"I think that they are going be voting at record levels, like they did in the midterms," she said. "Look at the midterms. Look at how we were able to win them. We won them with an increased turnout. We also won them with candidates who fit their districts. Sometimes they were liberals. Sometimes they were people like [Des Moines-area moderate Rep.] Cindy Axne."
On the debate stage, and after, Klobuchar has cut through the electability argument by describing most left-wing candidates as unrealistic and a little dishonest. Warren's rise in the state came after she proposed a "wealth tax" that paid for almost every one of her agenda items, from universal child care to forgiveness of most student loan debt. Klobuchar, and plenty of other Democrats, have zeroed in on the item the wealth tax does not pay for - Medicare-for-all - to portray the senator from Massachusetts as slippery.
In doing so, Klobuchar is cashing in on a bet she made two years ago, when she refused to join many 2020 contenders (and even her then-fellow senator from Minnesota, Al Franken) and endorse Medicare-for-all. The campaign sees a strong contrast to be made with Pete Buttigieg, the other beneficiary of the debates, who had repeatedly endorsed the "Medicare-for-all" term and the end-goal of "single-payer" health care but now campaigns for "Medicare-for-all who want it." Klobuchar points out that unlike him, she had to take an actual stand against activists pressuring her to sign on to the bill.
"When you're in the Senate, you can't pussyfoot around these issues," Klobuchar said. "Our first call is to do no harm, but we also have to make things better. And what's the best way to do that? Well, it's the public option, and it's taking on pharma. So that's what I've talked about from the beginning. I have not wavered from that. There was a lot of pressure to put your name on that [Medicare-for-all] bill, and I'm the only one on that stage from within the Senate who is not on it."
Asked whether the end goal of the public option should be single-payer - the eventual replacement of most private insurance with one government provider - Klobuchar was pragmatic. "Can people change their minds over time?" she asked. "You can always make adjustments." It was a theoretical question, and she was more interested in what she could do with executive powers or with a Democratic Senate.
At each stop, with crowds ranging from 70 to 200 people, Klobuchar tended to get questions about what she liked to emphasize. What could she get done? Every question was an opportunity to get back to her record, which evoked a calmer, better Washington where no one got credit unless they did real work.
"As you look at all these candidates, a lot of them have made promises now that they're running for president," Klobuchar said in Panora. "Look at who is the candidate on that stage who chose to get on the Agriculture Committee, and is proud to serve on the Agriculture Committee. That would be me."
When the speech was over, Klobuchar stayed for photos, as the campaign invited Panorans to visit her green-wrapped campaign bus. Some of the gawkers took photos. One guest left a rhubarb pie. After all, no other 2020 Democrat had been nice enough to visit Panora.
This article was written by David Weigel, a reporter for The Washington Post.