NASHVILLE — Amy Klobuchar was testing the bounds of political reality, seeking an unknown well of support here, a slight departure for a presidential candidate who constantly asks her crowds to back “real plans, not pipe dreams” and pitches herself as a pragmatist.
“Something is going on right now in the South,” the senator from Minnesota told the crowd of about 400, who braved the Nashville Friday night traffic for a glimpse of a Democrat from a much more frigid state. “And I hope you know that, and it is a big thing.”
The dream of an unforeseen, late-breaking surge for a candidate reeling from a sixth-place finish (in a top tier six candidates deep) mirrors the fondest campaign memory for Ms. Klobuchar: her surprise rebound to third place in New Hampshire after a yearlong focus on Iowa did not result in a single delegate.
As candidates not named Biden or Sanders scramble to mount a Super Tuesday challenge amid headwinds of “two-person race” punditry, Ms. Klobuchar’s pursuit of a delegate count meaningful enough to stay in the race resembles that New Hampshire effort: direct appeals to moderate Democrats, independents and even some Republicans, and visits to states packed with them.
“I think my brand of politics, as I said, is much more suitable for Utah,” Ms. Klobuchar told a Fox affiliate in Salt Lake City, during a round of damage-control interviews with local media outlets in Utah, Tennessee, Colorado and Minnesota on Sunday morning after the South Carolina primary.
Even so, the anchor pressed, Utah counts only 29 pledged delegates. Why focus there — Ms. Klobuchar was about to kick off her last day of campaigning before Super Tuesday in Salt Lake City — when there are more delegate-rich states elsewhere?
“I want to go everywhere,” she said. “I don’t think you should leave parts of the country behind.”
Following the strategy outlined in a memo last month by her campaign manager, Justin Buoen, Ms. Klobuchar is campaigning with the vigor of a front-runner, blitzing 11 of the 14 Super Tuesday states with a heavy focus on areas in the South and West with open primaries, in which voters who aren’t registered as Democrats can participate.
The campaign hopes to cap its Super Tuesday run with a home-state victory in Minnesota.
An outright win anywhere else is far less likely, but the Klobuchar campaign strategy is focused on collecting delegates wherever it can, siphoning votes in a hodgepodge manner across states like Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee to stay in contention rather than emerge the delegate leader. Her campaign’s absence in the two biggest Super Tuesday states, California and Texas, over the past week telegraphs that plan.
Ms. Klobuchar could benefit from the exit of former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a fellow Midwestern moderate who topped her in each of the first four nominating contests and developed into a fixation of Ms. Klobuchar’s ire in the debates.
But her path to not-quite-winning-yet has yielded plenty of questions about her own viability. She gets asked variations of the “should you continue” question frequently enough in interviews and on the campaign trail that she has developed a standard answer for it.
“Is it time for some of the more moderate candidates like yourself to consolidate behind one candidate?” asked a voter who was supporting former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg at a town hall event in Raleigh, N.C., that was televised on Fox News.
“Only 3 percent of the people have voted in this country,” Ms. Klobuchar responded, noting that the use of “consolidate” was a “nice verb” compared to what she is usually asked. Yet among that 3 percent, Ms. Klobuchar is now fifth in the total popular vote, with a nearly nonexistent base of support among voters of color.
Her early-state struggles have led some supporters to grow despondent about her chances, but others see a silver lining.
“I think she’d be a great president, or vice president,” said Brewster Harding, 77, who came to see Ms. Klobuchar make a quick, 700-mile detour to Portland, Maine, between rallies in Virginia and North Carolina. “I think she’s got it above most of the candidates. I just don’t think she’ll make president. But, you know, somewhere along the line, she’ll get it.”
The frantic effort to continually introduce herself as an underdog in a winnowing race is a new challenge for Ms. Klobuchar, who methodically climbed the ladder in Minnesota, from a successful career as a corporate lawyer to a prosecutor to a senator.
Her seemingly endless fountain of good will in her home state, her supporters say, is one of her strongest assets. To that end, the Klobuchar campaign has dispatched Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis and Tim Walz, the state’s popular governor, to campaign for her in Virginia.
“She wins in areas that are tough, but she brings folks together and she does it with a joyfulness,” Mr. Walz said in a phone interview from Virginia, having just completed two round-table events with veterans.
“A lot of folks are responding that it feels like this race got much more wide open yesterday,” he added, referring to the South Carolina results as halting the perception of an inevitable Bernie Sanders nomination.
Complicating her campaign’s desire to traipse the country is a growing threat to Ms. Klobuchar’s most prized target: the 75 delegates available in Minnesota, where she remains among the most popular senators with her constituents in the country. But Mr. Sanders, who won the Minnesota primary in 2016, is mounting a serious challenge to Ms. Klobuchar, holding a rally Monday night in St. Paul with a rock band and Representative Ilhan Omar.
Ms. Klobuchar, on the other hand, was forced to cancel a rally in her own backyard Sunday night, after protesters from Black Lives Matter and other local civil rights groups took over the stage in St. Louis Park, Minn. They were calling attention to the case of Myon Burrell, a black man convicted of murder as a teenager while Ms. Klobuchar was county attorney.
Recent news reports have raised questions about the case, including numerous reported flaws with the prosecution. Ms. Klobuchar, while stopping short of apologizing, has called for the case to be reviewed.
But on Friday in Nashville, where Ms. Klobuchar kept the crowd applauding, cheering and rapt for nearly an hour, voters were warming to her. “I feel like I trust Amy,” said Susie Garland, 57, who lives in the city.
But she, like many, worried about a difficult path ahead for anyone other than Mr. Sanders.
“It is a little frightening because I do feel like there are probably more moderate people who would vote for a moderate if we could all join hands, but I don’t quite feel like I know who should be dropping out yet,” she said. “We are at the beginning.”