Sen. Amy Klobuchar sought to carve out space for herself in Thursday's fractious Democratic debate as the candidate who would give voice to voters "tired of the noise and nonsense" and caught between the "extremes" of the nation's polarized politics.
"If you feel stuck in the middle of the extremes in our politics and you are tired of the noise and the nonsense, you've got a home with me," the Minnesota Democrat said. "Because I don't want to be the president for half of America — I want to be the president for all of America."
She also sought to make a virtue of her modest Midwestern sensibility, a trait that has done little to raise her national profile.
"I may not be the loudest person up here, but I think we've already got that in the White House," Klobuchar said on the debate stage in Texas' largest city. "Houston, we have a problem. We have a guy there who is running our country like a game show. He would rather lie than lead."
Klobuchar also offered an early tweak at her rivals, saying she was an alternative for voters who think some Democratic proposals "are a little off track. I've got a better way." A few minutes later, she criticized Medicare for All proposals championed by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
"While Bernie wrote the bill, I read the bill," Klobuchar said, in perhaps the strongest attack of her three debate performances so far. "It says on page eight we will no longer have private insurance as we know it. That's 149 million Americans in four years that won't have their current insurance. I don't think that's a bold idea. I think that's a bad idea."
Klobuchar said a better idea would be a public option, saying it would extend insurance coverage to an additional 12 million people and bring down costs for another 13 million. She noted that former President Barack Obama was a public option supporter.
"That's a bold idea," Klobuchar said. She also called for federal legislation to curb the cost of prescription drugs.
Asked about police shootings of black men while she was Hennepin County prosecutor, Klobuchar defended her record on race. She said she now believes prosecutors rather than grand juries should decide whether to charge police officers involved in shootings. She also called for legislation to reduce federal sentences for nonviolent offenders, "and when they get out we should help them get jobs and let them vote."
For the Minnesota senator, trying to overcome persistently low poll numbers and advance in the Democratic pack, the Houston debate among 10 rivals offered her best opportunity to date to impress Democratic voters.
It was also Klobuchar's first time on stage with front-runner Joe Biden. Most race watchers agree the former vice president, who offers a similar message of bipartisan cooperation and electability, would need to lose support in order for Klobuchar to make major gains in the polls.
While she made a few light jabs at the proposals of candidates to her left, Klobuchar at no point in the debate mentioned Biden. She criticized President Donald Trump several times, particularly his trade policies and their effect on the farm economy. "He is treating our farmers and workers like poker chips in his bankrupt casino and if we're not careful he's going to bankrupt our country," she said.
But her signature moments came when she offered a message of Democratic unity.
"I believe that what unites us up here, the 10 of us, is much stronger than what divides us," Klobuchar said. "And I think that's true of our country, too."
At one point after former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro attacked Biden, several candidates sparred for a few seconds about the tone of the debate. Klobuchar interjected: "A house divided against itself cannot stand, and that is not how we win this election."
Of the group, Klobuchar and Castro have polled the lowest, putting them on the wings of the debate stage.
Klobuchar has expressed some unhappiness with previous debate formats, which gave her less airtime than the race leaders. In Iowa last month, Klobuchar chided the previous moderators for not asking any questions about issues facing rural America. She got generally good marks in the first two debates but did not seem to make a huge impression. Television pundits generally said Klobuchar had a good night Thursday, but many questioned whether it would change the race in any substantial way.
Patrick Condon • 202-662-7452