Klobuchar pitches pragmatism as she seeks to carve identity in Democratic presidential field

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar pitched her “heartland” credentials and disputed that she was not liberal enough to win the Democratic nomination for president in a Wednesday town hall on the Fox News channel, a network that targets conservatives.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar participates in the She the People Presidential Forum in Houston, Texas, U.S. April 24, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott/File Photo

Klobuchar, of Minnesota, is banking that she can best the more than 20 Democrats vying for the nomination by arguing she is the most electable in November 2020. She has refused to move to the left, and is betting Democratic primary voters will see her Minnesota credentials as proof she can win states in the Midwest that sent Republican Donald Trump to the White House in 2016.

“I am a proven progressive. The last time I checked, if you want to be a progressive and support progressives, then you have to make progress,” Klobuchar said when asked why liberal voters in her party should support her candidacy.

Klobuchar, a three-term senator, talks frequently about being the daughter of two union workers and the granddaughter of an iron ore miner. She calls the more progressive proposals by her 2020 competitors “aspirational,” endorsing a more incremental approach.

In the Fox News town hall, Klobuchar said she supports universal health care, a central point of several of her rivals’ campaigns, but thinks it is better to first try to expand on the existing Affordable Care Act. Klobuchar said she would support a public option, a hybrid that would allow people to either keep their private insurance or buy into the existing government program.

Klobuchar has also not opted to join the liberal wing of her party in backing the Green New Deal, a loose package of environmental proposals.

“She is playing to her strengths,” said Jim Manley, a Minnesota native and Democratic strategist who worked for the former Senate majority leader Harry Reid.

Trump won Midwest states like Wisconsin and Michigan in the 2016 election, victories attributed in part to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s largely ignoring the states which Barack Obama had won.

She “sees a chance for someone from the Midwest to make a play in the battleground states, including Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin,” Manley said.

Klobuchar won her 2018 Senate re-election race by 24 points, carrying 42 counties that Trump won in 2016, including 39 in rural areas. It is a point she comes back to often, including this week when she addressed members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union.

“Every time I’ve led our ticket in our state we have won,” Klobuchar said to enthusiastic applause. “We had two Senate seats up at the same time – we won our governor’s race in a very purple state that Donald Trump almost won and we flipped the statehouse from the Republicans.”

Trump lost Minnesota in the 2016 election by 1.5 percentage points - the smallest margin since the 1980s - and he carried 78 of the state’s 87 counties. At a recent stop in the Minneapolis suburbs, Trump said he would have won had he given just “one more speech” there during his campaign.

But so far, Klobuchar has struggled to gain traction in the Democratic primary race, lagging in early polls and in fundraising. A Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll conducted April 17-23 put her support among Democrats and independent voters at just 1 percent.

“What I love about a presidential campaign is you can get out there and you can meet people and they can get to know you,” Klobuchar said. “This is going to be a long campaign, and we’re all going to be able to make their cases.”

Reporting by Amanda Becker; Editing by Leslie Adler