Watch CBS News

Still lagging in the polls, Amy Klobuchar looks for an Iowa upset

5 Dems likely to leave campaigns for trial
Five Democrats likely to leave campaigns for Senate impeachment trial 02:25

Senator Amy Klobuchar's presidential campaign is staying on message and trumpeting what they call "Klomentum" in Iowa as her polling has inched up the past few months.

But when the Des Moines Register, the premier newspaper in the state, released its latest poll this weekend, it pegged the Minnesota senator's campaign in fifth place. The recent CBS News poll also showed her in fifth, trailing the four front-runners for the Democratic nomination.

The Register poll was accompanied by a graphic of a photoshopped Klobuchar chasing a toboggan filled with her consistently higher-polling rivals, signifying that she still has catching up to do in the final downhill race to the Iowa caucus on February 3.

Despite a series of well-received debate performances, the Minnesota senator remains mired in the single digits with just weeks to go before the caucuses, according to the paper.

Top endorsers of Klobuchar's presidential bid describe the next few weeks as "high stakes" as she faces a critical presidential primary debate on Tuesday, followed by an uncertain-but-impending Senate impeachment trial that could keep her off the campaign until close to Caucus Day.

And yet Klobuchar and many of her biggest endorsers in the state (she boasts 11 endorsements from current Iowa legislators, the most of any candidate) retain an air of measured hopefulness about her chances.

Tuesday's debate gives Klobuchar a big chance to break out before the caucuses. Since the beginning of the debate season, Klobuchar has been open about her need to introduce herself to the broader electorate.

Some of her endorsers, granted anonymity to speak candidly about the campaign, told CBS News they believe Klobuchar should aim to draw more contrast with former Vice President Joe Biden, a strategy she has previously avoided. "She needs to" go after Biden at the debate, one endorser said.

With foreign policy in the spotlight after the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, Biden's support for the 2003 American invasion of Iraq could provide one line of attack for Klobuchar.

This week on the trail, Klobuchar repeatedly noted her opposition to the Iraq War in her first Senate race in 2006. When asked by CBS News if she holds Biden's vote for the Iraq War resolution against him, Klobuchar said in part, "I have major disagreement with him on that and I know he has now said that he regretted that vote and I think it is significant that he said that."

Once the debate is over, the next and perhaps most-difficult obstacle for her to overcome is the upcoming Senate impeachment trial. The campaign is gamely putting on their game faces and they trying to figure out how they can keep running in Iowa if to draw attention to Klobuchar, while she's sequestered away on in the Capitol Hill.

Klobuchar tells her crowds that her state surrogates are ready to hit the road. Quick flights back and forth from Washington will hopefully be possible during a trial, campaign manager Justin Buoen told CBS News. If not, he said, Klobuchar could can always reach out to voters over the phone.

But for those who know the state best, any time away from the trail could be a major drag on her prospects.

"Oh my God ... I worry about [the impeachment trial] every single day and then I am in denial the rest of the time," one of Klobuchar's top endorsers said. "Amy is not first, she is not second, she is not third, she is not fourth, she is running fifth in Iowa. What will bring her into the top couple is her presence in Iowa, her speechmaking, her reaching out to other people…her presence is critical."

So before she is forced back to Washington, Klobuchar has prioritized stops in all of Iowa's 99 counties, an achievement that received loud applause at her town hall on Saturday in Fort Dodge. In fact, she has made at least 181 campaign stops in Iowa, the most of any major candidate, according to stats collected by CBS News' Adam Brewster and Musadiq Bidar.

On the trail, Klobuchar's events are more seminars than hoot-and-holler rallies as she talks on what she knows best: her experience. That's how the senator recently found herself in a modest Iowa hotel ballroom with just 46 attendees gathered to discuss what she would do for Americans with disabilities if elected president.

She rattles off her accomplishments in public life almost like she's dictating a resumé, her fingers emphasizing bullet points on the Senate bills that she "led" or is trying to get passed now.

"OK, other challenges," Klobuchar says with a deep breath and a hand on her hip, her stump speech moving along to problems she hopes to solve, which almost always includes prescription drug prices, infrastructure, and rural issues, to name a few.

"I'm obsessed with this!" Klobuchar shouted in Cedar Rapids when asked about the absence of healthcare workers in some rural areas.

If Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez thinks the "tent" of the Democratic party can be "too big," as she recently told New York magazine, Klobuchar is mallet-in-hand trying to expand that tent to include independents and disappointed Trump voters. She religiously cites the Trump-voting Minnesota counties she won in 2018, arguing her crossover appeal would allow her to "win big," a Klobuchar catch phrase, should she first secure her party's nomination.

After her events, voters say they enjoy her wit and humor, as Klobuchar mixes jokes with red-meat digs at President Trump.

"We can do better than a whiner in the White House," she says, listing off the president's frequent complaints about the Obama administration, Trump-appointed Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell, and "the entire country of Denmark." That's a reference to last year's story about Mr. Trump's cancelled trip to the nordic nation, which had rebuffed his offer to buy Greenland. 

"Who does that!" she cracks, slumped forward like a comedian on stage.

Klobuchar's emphasis on her experience is winning over some voters. "I can't explain it," Nedra Conrad, 59, said after committing to caucus for Klobuchar instead of billionaire Tom Steyer, another candidate hoping for a surprisingly strong finish next month. "I just felt like she was representing me up there on the stage and that's what I was hoping for."

"My mind had not been made up but I am supporting her now," Colette Salmon, 73, said in Fort Dodge. Salmon said she feels like she can "get more excited" about Klobuchar's candidacy than Biden's, who she favored before the event.

Conversions like these help boost the cautious confidence found among her top endorsers.

"I think she will do OK," one top endorser said. "I'm optimistic that I can see a path for her getting into fourth place and then spring boarding out of Iowa."

But if Klobuchar's campaign continues to compete beyond Iowa and into more-racially diverse states like Nevada and South Carolina, a Washington Post poll released this weekend underscores another looming danger for her campaign: her lack of minority support. 

According to the Post, Klobuchar currently has the support of less than one percent of black voters, a crucial voting bloc in the Democratic Party. Asked by CBS News to respond to the poll, Klobuchar said that "they need to get to know me," as she is not a household name like Biden or Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

Back on the trail, Klobuchar says she's up for all of these challenges because she has "grit," which was on display this weekend when a blizzard hit near a town hall she held in Ottumwa. With winter weather and its affect on turnout always a concern ahead of the caucuses, Klobuchar notes that she announced her candidacy in the middle of a Minnesota blizzard last year. 

"Amy Klobuchar never cancels anything!" the senator told a crowd of 56 people who had braved the weather to see her. 

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.