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Klobuchar's 3rd Place Finish In New Hampshire 'Shocked The Establishment'

Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., waves to supporters in New Hampshire. Her surprise finish on Tuesday, beating out Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, has injected new hope into her presidential campaign.
Scott Eisen
Getty Images
Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., waves to supporters in New Hampshire. Her surprise finish on Tuesday, beating out Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, has injected new hope into her presidential campaign.

Updated at 3:22 p.m. ET

After a fifth-place finish in Iowa, Amy Klobuchar's head-turning performance in New Hampshire on Tuesday night has some calling the Minnesota senator "the comeback kid."

Klobuchar captured nearly 20% of the vote, placing her third behind Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. To the surprise of some observers, she edged out Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden — a surge that has prompted supporters on social media to rally behind the hashtags #Klomentum and #Klobmentum.

In a crowded field of candidates, Klobuchar carved out a path running as a pragmatic moderate from the Midwest who can consolidate support from liberal and more centrist voters alike.

"Hello, America," Klobuchar said to a room of supporters on Tuesday night. "I'm Amy Klobuchar, and I will beat Donald Trump."

"Amy Klobuchar just shocked the establishment," said Howard Dean, the former chair of the Democratic National Committee, speaking on CNN on Wednesday. "All of a sudden, Amy Klobuchar is now a serious candidate."

Strong debate showing

Her performance Tuesday followed a strong showing in Friday night's Democratic debate, which appeared to win over late-breaking undecided voters.

The three-term senator dragged Buttigieg for being a "cool newcomer." And she portrayed herself as a more reasonable alternative to more left-leaning candidates. She vowed to change the tone of the presidency and to be an advocate for struggling Americans.

"There is a complete lack of empathy in this guy in the White House right now, and I will bring that to you," Klobuchar said to audience cheers during the debate. "If you have trouble stretching your paycheck to pay for that rent, I know you, and I will fight for you. If you have trouble deciding if you're going to pay for your child care or your long-term care, I know you and I will fight for you," she said.

"I do not have the biggest name up on this stage. I don't have the biggest bank account," she added. "But I have a record of fighting for people."

It's a message that resonated with New Hampshire voters. More than half of Klobuchar's supporters made the decision to vote for her in the last few days before the primary, according to an AP VoteCast survey of more than 3,000 Democratic primary voters in the state.

"Biden collapsed in Iowa, so moderates rotated to Buttigieg, but then he got attacked by everyone in the debates, so Klobuchar took those voters who started rethinking Buttigieg," said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center.

The center's polling, he said, showed Klobuchar at around 6% before the Friday debate ended. She then shot up to nearly 10% in its polling just before the primary.

"All of it happened in the 72 hours preceding the election," he said.

Part of her appeal, supporters say, is her ability to reach across the aisle and work with Republicans.

In a 2019 ranking by The Lugar Center and Georgetown University judging how often lawmakers introduce legislation that attracts co-sponsors from the opposing party, Klobuchar was rated as the 23rd most bipartisan senator in Congress. Her two fellow senators running for president, Warren and Sanders, ranked 68th and 100th, respectively.

On the campaign trail, Klobuchar has positioned herself within the more moderate wing of the Democratic Party: she has stopped short of endorsing "Medicare for All," saying she prefers more immediate steps that will expand health care coverage. And she opposes tuition-free college.

"I have stood up on so many progressive issues, whether it is choice, whether it is the environment, whether it is standing up for immigrants and against racial injustice," she told NPR last year. "But there are moments where we can find common ground."

Nevada and South Carolina

With the Democratic contest now moving to more diverse states — Nevada on Feb. 22, then South Carolina on Feb. 29 — the Klobuchar camp will be confronting a key question: Can her middle-of-the-road, problem-solver pitch win over black and Latino Democrats, whose support will be critical in upcoming contests?

Her road ahead appears challenging. Klobuchar placed her first advertisement in Nevada on Tuesday and has barely spent on messaging in South Carolina, having expended much of her campaign resources in Iowa and New Hampshire.

"Candidates makes a difference in Nevada with a strong field operation. There's really no substitute for that," said pollster Paleologos. "That's a big liability for Klobuchar right now."

Another obstacle will be winning over nonwhite voters. Nevada's voters were were 41% nonwhite in the 2016 election, and 61% of South Carolina Democratic voters were African American.

Klobuchar's support within these communities has been weak. For example, she polled 0% with black voters nationally in a Washington Post/Ipsos poll conducted in January.

"Our senators aren't household names to everyone," Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz told NPR on Wednesday. "She doesn't have billions of dollars. But what she does have is a work ethic and a track record," he said. "My only surprise is that she didn't peak earlier."

Klobuchar has defended both her support among black voters and her prior career as a county prosecutor. During a Tuesday interview on The View, she said she has "always has had strong support" among African American voters in her home state of Minnesota, in addition to the backing of black community leaders who have campaigned for her, she said

"My challenge is to get people to know me," Klobuchar said.

Another challenge will be fundraising. Klobuchar finished the fourth quarter of 2019 with less cash on hand than any of her four main rivals for the nomination. Her campaign coffers will need larger cash infusions and a significant boost to her on-the-ground campaigning if she wants to be a real contender ahead of Super Tuesday, said David Plouffe, the former campaign manager for Barack Obama, speaking on MSNBC on Tuesday.

"She's got to now put together a national campaign overnight," Plouffe said.

Her surprise performance on Tuesday has infused her supporters with hope that she can convert a bump in momentum into fundraising dollars. Klobuchar will be in New York on Wednesday for a fundraiser, and her campaign says she has raised more than $2.5 million in the hours after polls closed in New Hampshire.

Klobuchar is set to be in Nevada on Thursday and will hold a town hall sponsored by the League of United Latin American Citizens ahead of the state's caucuses in 10 days.

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Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.