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Klobuchar's Iowa Visit: A Test Drive for 2016?

Klobuchar's Iowa Visit: A Test Drive for 2016?

By Scott Conroy and Caitlin Huey-Burns - July 19, 2013

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar stepped off the Senate basement subway on Thursday morning and stopped to answer some questions from a reporter in her typically accommodating and affable manner.

The previous day, The Des Moines Register had broken the news that the two-term Democrat plans to visit Iowa to keynote the 10th annual North Iowa Wing Ding Fundraiser on Aug. 16.

 Such a jaunt is a bold move for a woman who thrives on blending in with her fellow legislators, as it will be the first Hawkeye State visit of the incipient 2016 election cycle by a prospective Democratic presidential candidate.

But Klobuchar denied that her appearance means she is strongly considering a run, noting her intention is to help raise money for Rep. Bruce Braley, who is vying to become Iowa’s next senator in 2014.

“It’s about two hours from my house,” Klobuchar said in downplaying the drive to Clear Lake, adding with a hearty laugh, “I'm actually amused that the ‘Wing Ding’ became, well, such a wingding!"

Though she may indeed be amused by reaction to news of her appearance, she could scarcely have been surprised. It is a truism that no politician who is spoken of as prospective presidential material ever travels to the nation’s first voting state by accident.

And while Klobuchar may not be the first (or even the second or third) name that rolls off the tongue when considering a potential Democratic field in 2016, those who have followed closely the career trajectory of the former Hennepin County attorney do not doubt that this folksy yet razor-sharp 53-year-old is in fact interested in seeking the nation’s highest office.

“Amy Klobuchar has got ‘Minnesota nice’ down to a T -- she’s ready for Garrison Keillor’s ‘A Prairie Home Companion,’ ” said Minnesota political analyst Larry Jacobs. “But don’t be fooled. This is a very ambitious, very skilled, very successful politician who has her sights set very high, and she’s been thinking about the next step for some time.”

Instantly distinguishable among the dreary countenances and graying, male visages so predominant in Washington’s halls of power, Klobuchar is known for her cheerful demeanor and self-deprecating charm.

A Yale honors graduate who earned her law degree from the University of Chicago Law School who then served as a legal adviser to former Vice President Walter Mondale, “Amy,” as Klobuchar prefers to be called, became “Senator Amy” in 2007.

In the years since then, the married mother of a teenage daughter (her husband is attorney and law professor John Bessler) has earned a reputation for being one of the most approachable and well-liked lawmakers in Washington.

Though she is a down-the-line partisan Democrat on just about every major issue, Klobuchar often emphasizes in speeches and interviews her preference for a bipartisan approach, and she enjoys solid relationships with Senate Republicans. Indeed, the only significant enemy she appears to have made since arriving in Washington is teen pop idol Justin Bieber: In 2011 the singer opined that she “needs to be locked up, put away in cuffs” when told that the senior senator from Minnesota had sponsored a bill to make it a felony to profit from uploading unlicensed content online.

Though a regular guest on local and national political news programs, Klobuchar remains far from a household name -- a fact that appears unlikely to change any time soon. But by venturing to Iowa this summer before Joe Biden, Martin O’Malley, or Kirsten Gillibrand has gotten around to it, she has positioned herself to earn some valuable press.

Several 2016 Republican hopefuls will also be making appearances around Iowa in conjunction with the state fair and other mid-August events, and members of the national media will be on hand to document it all, while adding Klobuchar’s name to the speculative headlines.

“I have no idea of her plans for 2016, and there are lots of major unknowns about the field before Sen. Klobuchar can be in a position to consider this,” said Jeff Blodgett, who helmed President Obama’s re-election campaign in Minnesota. “But her profile and presence -- hugely popular senator from a major state, an impressive list of accomplishments, former prosecutor, great public speaker, lots of fresh energy -- combine to make her an attractive and up-and-coming national leader for Democrats.”

At first glance, Klobuchar’s personality carries certain echoes of fellow Minnesotan and one-time White House aspirant Tim Pawlenty. Like him, her “normalcy” and down-to-earth nature are among her strongest political assets; Klobuchar revels, for instance, in telling the story about her first day in the Senate, when she confused a bowl of Thousand Island dressing for the soup of the day.

Klobuchar isn’t prone to setting the world on fire with barn-burning speeches or particularly daring swipes at the opposition, but she figures to do quite nicely in front of the Iowa Democratic activists who reside just across the border with Minnesota.

“She’s very articulate and does a great job of championing the values that we have, but then she also, just in on-one-one conversations, relates very well to people,” said Iowa state Rep. Tyler Olson, a Democrat who is running for governor and plans to attend Klobuchar’s speech next month. “We’re very welcoming, and one of the great things about Iowa is that we’ll give everybody a chance to tell their story and make their case.”

But the Pawlenty comparison may be a daunting one for Klobuchar, considering how quickly the once promising Republican candidate flamed out in 2011, as he struggled to gain traction in a crowded field of more dynamic personalities.

Without a large national profile and hailing from a mid-size state, Klobuchar has a limited fundraising network. And as is the case with every other 2016 Democratic hopeful, Klobuchar faces the stark likelihood of being drowned out completely by Hillary Clinton, whose entrance into the race almost certainly would preclude the Minnesotan’s candidacy in the first place.

But Clinton is unlikely to be miffed by the low-key lawmaker’s early foray into Iowa, particularly since the former secretary of state is being singled out for an award at the Wing Ding fundraiser.

Without another Senate campaign to worry about until 2018, there appears to be little downside for Klobuchar to float her name as potential White House material, in the event that Clinton chooses not to run.

And if a presidential campaign doesn’t materialize, there is always the possibility that the Midwestern bridge-builder might be considered for the vice presidency, a Cabinet post, or even a Supreme Court vacancy.

“She’s got a very good political antenna for spotting trends, and she’s very shrewd,” Jacobs said. “It gets her name in circulation -- takes it out of a dusty corner and puts a little buff on it.” 

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Scott Conroy and Caitlin Huey-Burns

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