NASHUA, New Hampshire — It might actually be happening this time. And Amy Klobuchar knows it.
“We are surging!” she cried to a crowd of more than 1,100 on Sunday — her biggest crowd of the primary season, packed into a middle school gym and waving small American flags.
Pundits have been predicting the moderate Minnesota senator's rise in the Democratic primary since October, as she racked up supposed debate wins and endorsements and built a campaign on her own “electability” in the states Democrats desperately need in 2020. For months, though, there was little sign among voters of that surge. Polls remained stagnant, and small, quiet crowds often tailed her in Iowa.
But this time, after the latest Democratic debate and just before New Hampshire votes in the nation's first primary, there's serious evidence that the Klobuchar is becoming a threat to the other moderates in the race: record-sized crowds, impressive fundraising hauls, and polls that suddenly show her in third place, ahead of Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden.
Her delight at this fact, at a succession of diners and packed rallies across New Hampshire, is palpable.
“And by the way, I've got a plan for the Midwest — and we can include New Hampshire as well,” Klobuchar told Sunday's middle school gym crowd. “We're going to build a beautiful blue wall around these states, and we're going to make Donald Trump pay for it.”
Not much has changed with Klobuchar herself. Her politics are still moderate, Midwestern, and pragmatic, her jokes still corny, her speeches filled with riffs about infrastructure. Her mentions of Minnesota, Minnesota politics, and snowstorms are still something close to compulsive.
One thing that is different: the complicated aftermath of the Iowa caucuses. Biden finished in fourth place, just barely ahead of Klobuchar, leaving his supporters skittish and his path to the Democratic nomination in doubt. Pete Buttigieg — who finished in the top two with Bernie Sanders — is, for now, the leading moderate candidate; his biggest weakness, his political inexperience, is something Klobuchar has repeatedly and skillfully criticized in debates.
Polls in New Hampshire now have Klobuchar neck-and-neck with Warren and Biden. In 48 hours after Friday night's debate — where she made waves by attacking everything from Medicare for All (“It is not real, Bernie”) to Pete Buttigieg (“We have a newcomer in the White House, and look where it got us”) — Klobuchar raised $3 million, three times what she raised in the two days after she launched her campaign a year ago.
She broke her crowd-size record in New Hampshire Friday, drawing 700 people in Manchester, and then broke it again hours later in Nashua.
“She's awesome,” said Patty McKeon, a homemaker in Bedford, New Hampshire, who came to see Klobuchar in Nashua. “She knows what she wants to do, and she has a way she's going to do it. She's not just talking.”
Anne Dowling, a retiree who lives in Canterbury, had just been to Klobuchar's event Sunday after seeing Warren. She liked the Massachusetts senator, she said. But she thought Warren's politics were ultimately unrealistic. Klobuchar “has the details right.”
“The best point Warren made today was, ‘It's not a time to be wishy-washy,'” Dowling said. “But it's also not a time to give the other side fodder. Partly, it's a gut thing. I like Amy.”
If Klobuchar finishes third or even fourth place in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, it would likely have serious consequences for other Democrats. Not just Biden and Warren, who she could beat, but Buttigieg, too. If she eats away at his voters — many of them moderates looking for electability and party unity, some looking for a Biden escape route — she could cost him a badly needed victory in New Hampshire, before the race moves to the less Buttigieg-favorable states of Nevada and South Carolina.
The one Democrat who isn't likely to lament her rise in the state: Bernie Sanders, who is not competing for the same voters and is watching his closest competition scramble among themselves.
Klobuchar still has virtually no path to the Democratic nomination, though that could potentially change after New Hampshire. She has concentrated most of her campaign's operations in the country's two early states, and she was outraised in the last fundraising quarter by even Andrew Yang.
Most critically, Klobuchar, a former tough-on-crime prosecutor, has 0% support from black voters, according to polls — a key part of the Democratic base.
The word “momentum,” when used to describe Klobuchar, has become something of a constant in the Democratic primary in recent months. There was Klobuchar trying to “turn her debate spotlight into momentum” in October and declaring her “momentum says we are doing pretty damn well in Iowa” in November. She was “quietly gaining momentum” on Dec. 4, “riding debate momentum” in late December, and “gaining momentum” in early January.
She did pull within striking distance of Joe Biden in Iowa. But Iowa, which borders her home state of Minnesota, was supposed to be Klobuchar's launch pad; she was the only major candidate to visit all of its 99 counties.
Part of that struggle to break through in Iowa at the end was because of Donald Trump's impeachment trial, which kept her off of the campaign trail in the last two weeks before the caucuses.
In January, when she appeared before a small, subdued crowd of some 150 people in Waukee, Iowa, in the midst of the trial, Klobuchar appeared exhausted and frustrated with the situation she had found herself in. She had just two days in Iowa before she would be forced to return to Washington.
She wished she could be in Iowa, she told the crowd: “I would like nothing more.”
And she was going to have to make a detour to South Carolina the next morning, Martin Luther King Day, something she had initially not planned. She'd been forced to make a schedule change after facing sharp criticism from black leaders in the heavily African American early-voting state.
“Long story,” she told Iowa voters of her South Carolina trip.
Klobuchar's speech was subdued, with few big applause lines and a number of missed one-liners.
She was a markedly different candidate this weekend in New Hampshire, promising to roars of applause to “restore decency to our politics and decency to the White House.” Her speech was, at times, breathless with excitement. Several lines prompted chants of, “AMY! AMY!”
“For a lot of us, this is a decency check,” she said. “This is a patriotism check on this president. And it is the simple notion that the heart of America is so much bigger than the heart of this guy in the White House.”
When a joke missed, prompting a single laugh in the enormous crowd, she wasn't fazed. “Thank you, one person,” she quipped.
“I have been bolted down on my desk in the Senate,” Klobuchar told a crowd in Salem on Sunday. “And I am finally unleashed.”