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7 May 2019

Amy Klobuchar interview: “Debates will begin at the end of June. We will get the field narrowed.”

Behind in the polls, the Minnesota senator and presidential candidate still cuts a confident figure in New Hampshire.

By David Millward

Pete Buttigieg, the youthful mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is generating acres of newsprint as the Democratic field contesting the 2020 nomination grows by the day, and polling still suggests Joe Biden – who formally announced his campaign in April – and Bernie Sanders remain the frontrunners.

But Amy Klobuchar is not bothered by the early polling when I interview her at a campaign stop in New Hampshire. She is brimming with confidence, unperturbed by the gap between her and her rivals. “There are a lot of Bs,” she jokes about Biden, Bernie and Buttigieg. “You know what I say: A comes before B.”

So what is her take on the race? Klobuchar smiles. “This is a long haul; this is a marathon and not a sprint,” she continues. “Every day there is a new sprint, and someone gets in – yay. That’s how it is.”

A former federal prosecutor, Klobuchar has a reputation as a formidable debater – and she is confident she will make inroads into her rivals’ lead once voters get the chance to compare the candidates directly. “Debates will begin at the end of June,” she says. “We will get the field narrowed. I am in a unique position.”

“I am a woman; I always like to say: may the best woman win,” she adds.

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We meet on the 58-year-old Minnesota senator’s eighth visit to the key early primary state of New Hampshire since announcing her presidential run in February. This time she is in Manchester, a former mill town trying to reinvent itself as a tech hub. At this stage of the electoral cycle, voters get to see wannabe incumbents of the Oval Office up close; another candidate told me New Hampshire is where voters get to “kick the tyres” as aspiring nominees troop up to the Granite State.

Some hold town halls – Elizabeth Warren recently drew several hundred to Exeter, a picturesque town with a proud revolutionary history. With perhaps a couple of dozen people in attendance, Klobuchar’s event feels smaller; more like a seminar than a political gathering. But she does well with the Manchester crowd, partly because of her self-deprecating humour.

The theme of the visit is transport. Manchester is pushing for a commuter rail system that would link the city to Boston, about 50 miles to the south. It is the sort of topic that is unlikely to gather national headlines for Klobuchar, but it is carefully calibrated to resonate with voters in a state which, because of its position in the electoral calendar, carries disproportionate political weight.

While some of her opponents, like Biden, have focused their campaigns on Trump, Klobuchar is betting that voters want to hear more about policies that directly affect their daily lives. “We have not made a major infrastructure investment in America, and it is long overdue,” she tells me as I ask her what she sees as the key priorities of her campaign.

“If you look at my record I am someone who brings people together, gets things done and really focuses on the bread-and-butter issues that people care about – like bringing down the cost of prescription drugs, and making sure people aren’t sitting in traffic jams all day.”

In fact, during our interview, she repeats the phrase “bread-and-butter” several times, in what might be taken as a subliminal rebuke to those on the left of the party who, some argue, have been over-ambitious in what they are offering to voters. While other candidates still appear fixated on the need to impeach Donald Trump, Klobuchar elegantly sidesteps the issue, pointing out that she only gets to vote on the issue once it is referred to the Senate by the House of Representatives. Her priority, she says, is legislation to protect future American elections from outside interference.

Klobuchar’s pitch is that she is a practical politician from the Midwest, in tune with the day-to-day concerns of the “flyover states” that Hillary Clinton was accused of ignoring in 2016. But she doesn’t shy away from divisive national issues, either. “Our economy is stable in America right now,” she says. “So what should we be doing? Immigration reform – it’s been sitting out there forever.”

Immigration is often framed as a powerfully divisive moral issue, but Klobuchar makes a simpler argument: it’s all about economics. “We have 12 million people here that don’t pay taxes,” she says. For the most part, she continues, they are “in the shadows,” but, she says, passing immigration reform and bringing undocumented immigrants into the legal workforce “would reduce our debt by $150bn.”

“That money could be used for some personnel at the border. That money could be used for training our workforce. That is one thing that is just sitting there,” she says.

From her viral confrontation with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh during his hotly contested confirmation hearing to the fact that she chose to brave a Minnesota blizzard to launch her campaign, the subliminal message of Klobuchar’s campaign has been that she is tough. But her presidential bid got off to a rocky start when Klobuchar was the subject of a series of articles in the Huffington Post alleging she mistreated her staff.

Now that news cycle appears to have died down, she can pivot away from defending herself to emphasising what she believes are her strengths. At the start of our chat, I ask Klobuchar if she is the candidate who can draw support from both the mainstream and radical wings of the party. She says yes. “I think we need someone in the White House to bring people together; [someone] that is going to stop this endless dissing of people and this endless chaos. We should be governing for opportunity in America and right now we are not.”

“So that means listening to people’s ideas,” she continues. “We may not embrace them in their entirety but listening to them and figuring out what is the best way forward right now.”

Critics believe Klobuchar’s moderation could cost her, in a race to lead a party that has moved to the left since Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Experts also question whether she can raise enough money to get through the “marathon” primary she describes.

But I was at the rally where Bernie Sanders finally anointed Clinton as the party’s candidate in 2016, and even then it was clear the event was an attempt to paper over the cracks. Bernie supporters told me they would stay at home rather than vote the ticket – and many did. This painful lesson was not lost on Klobuchar, who fears a divided Democratic party could pay a similar price in 2020. “If we don’t unify – right now – then Donald Trump is going to get back in office, and we can’t let that happen,” she says.

David Millward is a journalist working out of New England. A Telegraph staffer for more than 30 years, he writes on US politics and business and can be found tweeting as @davidgmillward

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