See more of the story

The first time Justin Buoen managed a political campaign, not quite two decades ago, he moved into the City Council's candidate's St. Paul house for the three months leading up to Election Day. She won.

For his latest gig, running the presidential campaign of Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, it's hotel rooms instead: in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, each point on America's political map a new test of this DFL insider's first time leading a national campaign — and of his candidate's viability.

"My philosophy has always been you have to survive and advance. You meet the threshold immediately in front of you," Buoen said this week from Nevada, where Klobuchar's campaign faces its next hurdle in Saturday's caucuses.

The 10 days after that, which includes the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29 and the 14-state Super Tuesday primary March 3, promise to be the most consequential ever of a 15-year partnership between Klobuchar and Buoen, previously an unknown in presidential politics.

Despite an unexpectedly strong finish in New Hampshire, Klobuchar has yet to break past several rivals in national, Nevada or South Carolina polls. And the burst of national attention and a fundraising spike after New Hampshire left Buoen and his campaign team struggling to ramp up their lean operation to the extraordinary dimensions of a national campaign.

"The early states were about meeting or beating expectations. Now they have to start winning delegates," said Matt Bennett, a Washington consultant and former operative on several Democratic presidential campaigns.

Bennett said he's met Buoen but doesn't really know him. Watching from afar, he's been impressed at the way Klobuchar has risen in a Democratic field that only months ago included some two dozen candidates. But the campaign's margin for error now is slim, he added.

"If they don't show more strength, and soon, that's when the real hard decisions hit," Bennett said.

In tapping Buoen to manage her campaign, Klobuchar went for a trusted aide rather than an experienced Washington operative. Campaign experts said that's not unusual — past candidates like George W. Bush and Barack Obama put home-state advisers in top presidential campaign jobs.

"I think Amy sensed that she knows Justin and he knows her, and she's sticking with that, instead of bringing in a hired gun," said Gov. Tim Walz, a Klobuchar backer who previously hired Buoen to raise money for a couple of his U.S. House races.

Politicians with national ambitions often face pressure to hire big-name operatives, Walz said. Picking Buoen instead, he added, "was a bold move."

Since the days leading up to the Iowa caucus, Buoen has been on the campaign trail pretty much nonstop. Even as he juggled management of the campaign's various silos — fundraising, press relations, field operations, research — he was often near his candidate's side. At times he could be seen personally managing the line of people queuing up for photographs with Klobuchar after a rally.

"There's no job too small for a leader in an organization," Buoen said.

Still, Buoen said this week he needed to head back soon to headquarters in Minneapolis in order to focus more fully on the Super Tuesday strategy. Pundits already have questioned whether Klobuchar's all-hands-on-deck approach in the first couple of states is feasible as the field of play stretches from coast to coast.

"I think she's doing all right, but you've got Super Tuesday coming up now," said former Vice President Walter Mondale, a Klobuchar mentor who occasionally talks campaign strategy with Buoen. "You need enough money to fight that out, and the challenge is to come out of that looking like you still have some energy."

Buoen grew up in Arden Hills and attended the University of St. Thomas. He was a successful high school and college football player who, he said, ultimately had to decide between that and his other passion — politics.

"I chose politics, which was the right decision by far," Buoen said.

It ran in the family: his grandfather, Clifford Buoen, was a Twin Cities labor leader. His father, Roger Buoen, had multiple editing jobs at the Star Tribune over 27 years, a career that overlapped with longtime Star Tribune columnist Jim Klobuchar, the senator's father; Justin's mother was a reporter at the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

At St. Thomas, Buoen befriended Ryan Kelly, whose father Randy Kelly was elected mayor of St. Paul in 2001. In 2002, still in college, Buoen and Ryan Kelly went to work for Debbie Montgomery, a former police commander who they helped elect as the first black woman on the St. Paul City Council.

"They literally moved into her house for three months," Randy Kelly recalled. After that, Kelly hired Buoen as his deputy press secretary. Buoen quit two years later when Kelly, who had been elected as a Democrat, endorsed George W. Bush for re-election.

"I disagreed with him and thought John Kerry would have been a better president," Buoen said.

That year, Ken Martin — now the DFL chairman — was running Kerry's Minnesota campaign. He hired Buoen to lead the get-out-the-vote effort in the Republican-leaning Sixth Congressional District north of the Twin Cities. Kerry carried Minnesota in 2004 but lost the election to Bush.

After that election, Klobuchar, then the Hennepin County attorney, started formulating plans to run for attorney general in 2006. "Amy and I sat down and she said, 'Look, I need a young person to help me in the early days of this campaign.' And the first name I gave her was Justin," Martin recalled.

"We hit it off right away," Buoen said. When one of Minnesota's U.S. Senate seats opened up in early 2006, Klobuchar jumped into that race instead. Buoen led fundraising on that race, managed her re-election campaign in 2012, and was a senior adviser to her second re-election campaign in 2018.

Buoen envisioned a senior adviser role for himself on Klobuchar's presidential bid. Initially, he only agreed to lead the process of choosing a campaign manager.

"We couldn't find anybody who was the right fit," Buoen said. He explained how he and Klobuchar work together: "I know what she needs me to do, and she knows I know that. … We don't even have to talk about it. The unsaid stuff, that's an advantage."

Martin put it more colorfully: "Justin is the Amy whisperer," he said. "There's no one Amy trusts more, outside of probably her family, than Justin."

The upcoming weeks will tell if that trust pays off outside Minnesota. Nevada and South Carolina will show whether Klobuchar has any appeal to large blocs of nonwhite voters who comprise an integral part of the Democratic base. And the rising fortunes of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are casting a shadow over a clutch of more centrist competitors that includes Klobuchar.

With some Democrats fretting about Sanders' chances in November, Buoen said he believes Klobuchar's message of electability will continue to resonate. Stronger fundraising will allow the campaign to keep adding to the team, but Buoen said he intends to stay at the helm.

"I plan on managing this through Election Day in November," he said.