WASHINGTON — Senator Amy Klobuchar keeps having to tell Democratic voters the things they can’t have: Medicare for all, free college, mandatory gun confiscation and decriminalizing all border crossings.
In the first two Democratic debates, Ms. Klobuchar, a Minnesota moderate, refused both to embrace the party’s more liberal ideas or to draw an explicit contrast with Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Instead, she served as something of a palate cleanser between others onstage vying for the viral moment denied to her so far.
“I had to give the mom answer,” Ms. Klobuchar said Tuesday.
It’s a strategy betting on the long-term patience of Democratic primary voters she hopes will eventually pick a candidate selling herself as uniquely able to win back Midwestern voters who fled to President Trump in 2016 — if only she can attract their attention.
“I hope that these moderators will ask one of the other candidates, bring up one of my ideas and say, ‘Why isn’t this a good idea?’ That would be a nice framing,” Ms. Klobuchar said. “A lot of questions have been 30-second responses to other people’s ideas.”
Ms. Klobuchar, who qualified for the September and October debates, has for months been ensconced near the bottom of the what she once called “the A group” of candidates. She garnered 2 percent in just one of the last nine polls used to qualify for the party’s debates, leaving her in danger of missing the ones in November and December, when the Democratic National Committee is expected to raise the qualifying poll and donor thresholds.
Through two debates and seven months of campaigning, the traits that served Ms. Klobuchar in winning three Senate elections in Minnesota have limited her appeal in the Democratic presidential campaign. Back home, she has pursued a relatively safe electoral strategy, aiming to appeal to moderate Republicans while enjoying the unquestioned support of the liberal Democratic base without catering to her party’s left wing.
Before June, she hadn’t participated in a primary debate since her first Senate campaign in 2006. Since then she has built a political brand heavy on getting along — with both her fellow Democrats and moderate Republicans. An intramural squabble just isn’t her style.
“I don’t think Amy wants a fight with Democrats,” former Vice President Walter Mondale, Ms. Klobuchar’s highest-profile supporter, said in an interview Tuesday. “I don’t think that does us any good.”
Heading into Thursday night’s debate in Houston, some of Ms. Klobuchar’s key supporters are concerned that she hasn’t made a lasting mark in her first two debate performances.
“They served her up to go after the other people running and she declined to go there, she went against Donald Trump,” said Andy McGuire, a former Iowa Democratic Party chairwoman, who has endorsed Ms. Klobuchar. “She’s not a mean person, which sometimes in debates you have to be.”
The first two debates left Ms. Klobuchar fading into the wallpaper, when she has been noticed at all. She has been in the middle of the pack in speaking time — fifth of 10 candidates in the first debate, sixth of 10 in the second — and is deeply frustrated about the amount of attention paid to her by the moderators from NBC and CNN.
Twice during the CNN debate in July she tried interjecting herself into a conversation taking place among other candidates. Both times CNN’s moderators cut her off. Ms. Klobuchar, off-camera, turned to her husband and daughter in the audience and shrugged to indicate she was having trouble getting a word in, according to a person who sat near them.
She has resisted attacking fellow Democrats in favor of drawing a contrast with Mr. Trump, leaving her on the sidelines of the party’s high-profile food fights.
Instead, she has presented herself as a pragmatic progressive. During the first debate Ms. Klobuchar bragged about getting 34 of her bills signed by President Trump.
“O.K., that’s a first up here,” she quipped, to no applause.
Bruce Heyman, a former United States ambassador to Canada who hosted a fund-raiser for Ms. Klobuchar in Chicago, said her strategy hadn’t resulted in a clear definition between her and the other Democrats.
“I don’t think the message during the debates was as clear about who she is and how she would best lead the country as she has the ability to articulate,” Mr. Heyman said.
Mr. Mondale told The Star Tribune of Minneapolis last month that Ms. Klobuchar’s campaign had become “a prayer.” On Tuesday he recanted that assessment. “I had a bad day,” he said. “I dismiss and reject what I said.”
During the first two debates Ms. Klobuchar has indeed been hamstrung in part by questions that focused on her opposition to other candidates’ plans. During the first debate, five of the eight questions posed to her were asking why she doesn’t prefer the more-liberal proposals offered by others in the race.
Asked why “an incremental approach” on health care is better than a single-payer approach that would abolish private health insurance, Ms. Klobuchar sought to reframe the question around her proposal to add a public option to the Affordable Care Act. Lester Holt, one of NBC’s moderators during the June debates, then went to Ms. Warren, who threw a dagger at Ms. Klobuchar.
“I understand there are a lot of politicians who say, ‘Oh, it’s just not possible, we just can’t do it’,” Ms. Warren said. “What they’re really telling you is they just won’t fight for it.”
In the first question posed to her during the second debate, Jake Tapper of CNN asked if it was true, as Ms. Warren said, that Ms. Klobuchar lacked the will to fight for universal health care.
Ms. Klobuchar did not fire back at Ms. Warren.
“I just have a better way to do this,” she said. “Clearly, this is the easiest way to move forward quickly, and I want to get things done. People can’t wait.”
Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren went next, and each got loud ovations for launching broadsides against the health insurance industry.
On the campaign trail in recent weeks Ms. Klobuchar workshopped lines articulating the differences between her and the three Democratic front-runners.
At a Labor Day picnic in Iowa, Ms. Klobuchar said she, unlike former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., was a Midwesterner who has been elected in the Trump era. She won a third term last year, defeating her Republican opponent by 24 percentage points.
“I live in the Midwest. I’m from the Midwest, and I have a track record of actually winning in the areas where Donald Trump won, not years ago, just recently,” she said. “I think that’s very important.”
Then on Saturday she told New Hampshire Democrats gathered for their state party convention that her record carrying conservative parts of Minnesota portends how she would do in a general election against Mr. Trump.
“We need a candidate for president who understands that what unites us as a country is greater than what divides us, that has a track record of winning Democrats and independents and moderate Republicans in every place, in every race, every time,” she said.
On Tuesday Ms. Klobuchar dismissed concerns from some of her supporters that she hasn’t been aggressive enough. She said she would keep identifying herself as a unifier instead of leaning into contrasts with her opponents and said she didn’t have a plan to inject herself into discussions when she isn’t called upon by the moderators.
“I’m going to be who I am,” she said. “Sometimes when you’re a woman and you don’t get called on for a while, people assume it’s because you’re not being aggressive enough.”