Klobuchar, who has cast herself as a tell-it-like-it-is Midwesterner, has seen her lane crowded out by two other Democrats: Buttigieg, who also hails from the Midwest and is carving a center-left path through the primary, and Joe Biden, who is pitching himself as a truth-telling moderate who can win over voters who backed President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump.
In Iowa, where Klobuchar has staked her campaign, she continues to trail all four of the top candidates.
“She’s gotten better as these debates have gone on,” said David Axelrod on CNN after the debate. Klobuchar had starring turns on previous debate stages, including in October, when she raised more than $1 million in the 24 hours afterward.
But on Thursday, Klobuchar trained new fire on Buttigieg, particularly over his experience. And the hits are likely to keep coming, with Klobuchar returning to Iowa on Friday to touch off her third bus tour across the first caucus state.
Klobuchar, who has won three statewide elections in Minnesota, tweaked Buttigieg as a “local official.” She attacked him for “mocking the 100 years of experience” on the November debate stage, when Buttigieg contrasted his own time outside of Washington. Buttigieg, she implored, “should respect our experience when you look at how you evaluate someone.”
The Indiana mayor, leaning on his time serving in the military, responded, “That is my experience, and it may not be the same as yours, but it counts, senator. It counts.”
But she struck harder on his political resume, when he made a failed bid for state treasurer in Indiana in 2010 and then ran unsuccessfully for Democratic National Committee chairman in 2017.
“If you had won in Indiana, that would be one thing,” Klobuchar said. “You tried and you lost by 20 points.”
“If you want to talk about the capacity to win, try putting together a coalition to bring you back to office with 80 percent of the vote as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana,” Buttigieg shot back.
On CNN following the debate, Klobuchar again warned that Democrats should be careful not to nominate a candidate who wasn’t “able to win in a statewide race and then failed in a race for Democratic National Committee,” Klobuchar said.
But she conceded that Buttigieg is leading her in early state and national polls. “That is a problem,” she said. “It’s my case to make, and it’s my race to win.”
For his own part, Buttigieg said on CNN that the attacks are to be expected “when you’re doing well.”
Klobuchar didn’t limit her criticism to Buttigieg on Thursday night. Turning to Sen. Bernie Sanders, she said a Democrat can be “progressive and practical at the same time,” criticizing him for his “Medicare for All” proposal and advocating for the country to build on the Affordable Care Act instead.
“The way I look at it, if you want to cross a river over some troubled waters, you build a bridge,” she said. “You don’t blow one up.”
But Buttigieg was Klobuchar’s prime target, reflecting the urgency of a campaign lagging behind the frontrunners both in Iowa and nationally and in desperate need of a spark.
“She is trying to take skin from Pete, who has the overall vote share lead in Iowa and is the one she needs to leapfrog to take on Biden in the moderate vote lane,” one Democratic strategist said. “She has to perform well in Iowa or bow out.”
Klobuchar had made her first mark earlier in the debate — in a moment that belied the hit on Buttigieg she would later deliver.
Following a back-and-forth between Elizabeth Warren and Buttigieg over campaign finance — and Buttigieg’s hosting of a fundraiser in what Warren called a “wine cave full of crystals” — Klobuchar attempted to claim ground above them both.
“I did not come here to listen to this argument. I came here to make a case for progress,” Klobuchar said. “And I have never even been to a wine cave. I have been to the Wind Cave in South Dakota, which I suggest you go to. So what is making a case for progress about? That is what unites us up here instead of what divides us, which is campaign finance reform.”
The moment was a significant part of Klobuchar’s criticism of Buttigieg, in which she is moving to cast herself not only as a combatant, but as a unifying figure in the party. When she later criticized Buttigieg, it was by going down the line of Democrats on the debate stage, accusing him of belittling them all.