U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, trailing the biggest names in the Democratic presidential primary polls, directed much of her attention to President Donald Trump during Tuesday’s final debate before the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3.
The six-way encounter at Drake University in Des Moines — to date, the smallest collection of candidates on a debate stage — also was Klobuchar’s last chance to face off directly with her Democratic rivals in a televised debate before early voting starts on Friday in Minnesota.
Foreign policy and military action dominated the opening of Tuesday’s debate, the first since Trump authorized the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and set off fresh fears of further conflict in the Middle East.
The Minnesota senator sidestepped her past skepticism over the qualifications of former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a former naval officer, to serve as commander-in-chief. Instead, she opted to train her sights on the president.
“I think right now what we should be talking about is what’s going on with Donald Trump,” Klobuchar said. “Donald Trump is taking us pell-mell to another war.”
Klobuchar also hit Trump over his trade policies, blaming them for shuttered plants and job losses in rural America, and referred to a looming impeachment trial as “a decency check on our government.”
With time running out before voters render their verdict, Klobuchar has sought to present herself as a moderate alternative to the top tier’s most left-leaning candidates: Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. On Tuesday, she again tried to set herself apart on health care.
“This debate isn’t real,” Klobuchar said, dismissing Sanders’ and Warren’s plans for Medicare for All and free college as a “pipe dream.”
Sanders, who describes himself as a democratic socialist, topped the field in last week’s Des Moines Register poll as the choice of 20% of likely Iowa caucusgoers. Warren followed at 17%.
More crucially for Klobuchar, she also went into the debate trailing the other two centrists in the field: Buttigieg, and former Vice President Joe Biden, who leads in most national polls.
Buttigieg garnered 16% in the Register poll, in a virtual statistical tie with Warren and Biden.
Klobuchar, consistently running outside the top tier, came in fifth in the Register poll at 6%, though she improved somewhat in a Monmouth University poll this week, with 8% support among Iowa caucusgoers.
Many Iowa voters undecided
While many polls show a large number of Iowa voters still undecided, Klobuchar took the stage needing to overcome the gap between herself and the clutch of better known candidates in a contest that for many Democrats comes down to electability in a general election against Trump.
Some of her best debate moments have helped her focus her campaign narrative as a unifying presence in the face of hyper-partisanship, though she has yet to galvanize the Democratic base or assert herself as a top contender in 2020.
On Tuesday, Klobuchar recycled numerous past debate one-liners to again try to punctuate the point that her pragmatism and electability made her a compelling foil to the president.
“When you look at what I have done, I have won every race, every place, every time,” Klobuchar said. “I have won in the reddest of districts, I have won in suburban areas, in rural areas. I have brought people with me.”
She added that all of her vanquished GOP rivals exited politics: “That sounds pretty good with the guy we have in the White House right now.”
Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755 Twitter: @smontemayor