OSAGE, Iowa — Amy Klobuchar’s presidential prospects evaporated into the Midwest fog once President Donald Trump's impeachment trial forced the Minnesota senator off the campaign trail and back to Washington. Or so the conventional wisdom goes.
Her mandatory obligations as a juror came at the worst possible time — in the closing weeks before the Iowa caucuses. Klobuchar allies had been preparing for a big final push that could catapult her past at least one of the four frontrunners and reset the Democratic race.
They had the makings: more curious and undecided moderate voters showing up at her events. A couple of polls showing her rising to double digits (but others showing less movement). Another strong debate performance. Endorsements from the Quad-City Times in eastern Iowa and the New York Times, the latter split with Elizabeth Warren in a super-hyped decision that was televised nationally.
And then she had to go back to her full-time day job.
But conversations this week with a dozen Iowa voters — many of them moderates who have ranked Klobuchar somewhere among their top three as they decide among the many candidates — suggest her unavoidable absence might not kill her chances after all.
“I’m not sure she’ll win,” Tim Ott, a restaurant worker leaning toward the more liberal Bernie Sanders but still considering Klobuchar, said Wednesday as he waited for former vice president Joe Biden to speak at a veterans hall in Osage. “But she’ll outperform people’s expectations.”
Ott and others told BuzzFeed News that Klobuchar made a big enough impression in the time she spent here — including the endearing feat of visiting all of Iowa’s 99 counties — to remain in the mix as the caucus nears. Reality nevertheless undercuts such observations: All these likely caucusgoers rendered their opinions at events for Biden and Pete Buttigieg, the two moderates who have consistently outpolled Klobuchar in Iowa and will have more opportunities to sway last-minute deciders in person. But the interest in Klobuchar remains undeniably high.
“You’ve always been at the top of my list,” one woman told Biden during his town hall forum Wednesday in Mason City. “But I’m whittling my list down and still undecided. You could clinch the deal with a Biden–Klobuchar nomination. Or at least a female vice president on the ticket.”
The audience of about 100 people, including Robert Overby, an unemployed shuttle van driver, clapped enthusiastically.
“I liked the question about him maybe picking Amy for vice president because I’ve been thinking that way for the past couple months,” Overby, who has been volunteering for Biden’s campaign in Mason City and plans to support him, said afterward in an interview. “Another moderate from this part of the country. She’s been around enough for people to get to know her.”
Several voters made a similar point about Sanders and Warren, her Senate colleagues, describing their departures from day-to-day campaigning as excusable absences.
“Anybody who has followed any of this and has something other than a fourth-grade brain knows exactly what's going on, and they know the job of the senators is extraordinarily important,” Ann Fisher, a retired community college worker who has her choices narrowed to Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar, said as she waited to hear Biden in Mason City.
“It’s OK,” Fisher added of the senators. “They’ll be fine.”
Tuesday night at a Buttigieg event in Cedar Rapids, several voters insisted they already know enough about the candidates, even if they are just now deciding who to support.
“I think it’s great that they’re attending to their duties,” said Deann Zenor, a retired accountant who plans to caucus for Biden. “I think we’ve seen so much from them, and we know where we can go and get more information if we need it.”
“They’ve been here so long,” concurred Dan Wilson, who turned in Buttigieg’s favor after hearing him in Cedar Rapids. (Wilson, who works for a networking communications company, then blanked on John Delaney, a low-polling former member of Congress. “What’s-his-name has been here for two years. I can’t remember his name.”)
Biden and Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, are the only upper-tier candidates able to keep a consistent Iowa schedule during the impeachment trial. Both packed in events between Monday afternoon and Wednesday before leaving the state: Biden had meetings with advisers before going to New Hampshire, while Buttigieg had a fundraiser and a US Conference of Mayors speech, both in DC, followed by campaign events in South Carolina. And both candidates framed their closing arguments to Iowa voters around Trump’s impeachment, but in different ways.
As he’s done for months, Biden is emphasizing how the charges against Trump stem from the president’s request that the Ukrainian government seek information on him and his son Hunter. It’s Biden, the former vice president and his allies argue, who most frightens Trump as a general election opponent.
His daytime crowds on Wednesday were on the smaller side; in Osage, they included a man who had driven from Arizona to see candidates campaign in Iowa. The man, Stephen Delgado, asked Biden during the town hall Q&A if he would consider a deal for him and his son to testify in the impeachment trial in exchange for testimony from Trump administration officials.
“We’re not going to turn it into a farce or to some kind of political theater,” Biden replied, rejecting the suggestion. “They’re trying to do that. I want no part of that.”
Buttigieg, meanwhile, is positioning himself as the candidate least tied to the Washington drama.
“I have come to this process as somebody who has experienced politics not as a show — not as an arena to see who got the best zinger off in a debate, or who won the argument on cable — but [by] knowing how politics affects our everyday lives, how the decisions that are made in those big white buildings in Washington find their way into our workplaces, into our homes, into our marriages,” Buttigieg told the crowd of about 1,200 people in Cedar Rapids.
Klobuchar is relying on surrogates, including her daughter and allies from neighboring Minnesota, to carry her closing message on the days she can be in Iowa herself. And her campaign held a telephone town hall that Iowans dialed into after Wednesday’s impeachment business ended. More than 12,000 people participated, a spokesperson said.
Even so, not everyone is confident the impeachment absences won’t hurt.
“I think it’s going to be a challenge for her,” Kurt Meyer, the Democratic chair in Mitchell County, which includes Osage and borders Minnesota, told BuzzFeed News.
Meyer, who has not endorsed a candidate but plans to soon, added that Klobuchar is familiar to voters in the northern part of the state who are part of the Rochester, Minnesota, media market.
“That’s going to probably help her locally,” Meyer said. “She’s got great people, great surrogates. But a surrogate can probably only leave the seat warm.”