Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) faced a battle with five rivals for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination at Wednesday night’s primary debate in Las Vegas ― but she proved that she’s at war with one: Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
“I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete,” Klobuchar said as Buttigieg extended an attack on her approach to immigrants by breaking into Spanish.
“Are you trying to say that I’m dumb or are you mocking me here, Pete?” she asked earlier in that exchange, when Buttigieg noted she couldn’t name Mexico’s president in an interview. “I am the one, not you, that has won statewide in congressional district after congressional district,” she noted.
Klobuchar and Buttigieg are both Midwesterners who are selling themselves as more down to earth than their competitors and as politically moderate, calling sweeping changes like a rapid shift to “Medicare for All” unrealistic. Their campaigns and political analysts believe that means they are competing for the same pool of Democratic primary voters ― and that after Buttigieg did well in the first two contests, in Iowa and New Hampshire, and Klobuchar scored a surprising success in New Hampshire by taking third place, one will have to rally the other’s supporters to effectively challenge front-runner Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and other rivals.
But Klobuchar’s determination to portray Buttigieg as artificial, incompetent and pretentious was still striking. She attacked him more than she did anyone else on stage, an NBC analysis found. (Buttigieg’s prime target was Sanders.)
“You have not been in the arena doing that work,” the three-term senator said in response to pressure from Buttigieg over her record on immigration. “You’ve memorized a bunch of talking points.”
Klobuchar has been visibly frustrated with Buttigieg’s candidacy for months for reasons that appear to extend beyond a political competition.
In a November debate, she said a woman would not make it to a presidential debate stage with Buttigieg’s degree of experience, as a 37-year-old mayor of a small city. “Maybe we’re held to a different standard,” Klobuchar said.
At a December rematch, she noted that Buttigieg had lost elections to be Indiana’s state treasurer and the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. And at a debate earlier this month, Klobuchar called him “a cool newcomer” and said, “I’m not a political newcomer with no record. … I have a record of fighting for people.”
That round, she made sure the national audience watching the debate heard about Buttigieg’s campaign trail statement that, rather than watching the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, he would like to switch the channel and watch cartoons.
Buttigieg has stoked the fight with attacks of his own. He repeatedly sought to highlight Klobuchar’s weaknesses during Wednesday night’s match-up.
He criticized the senator for blanking on Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s name during a Telemundo interview released Feb. 14. (Buttigieg did recall his name when asked the question in the same format.)
“You’re staking your candidacy on your Washington experience,” Buttigieg said. “You’re on the committee that oversees border security, you’re on the committee that does trade ... and were not able to speak to literally the first thing about the politics of the country to our south.”
“I said that I made an error. People sometimes forget names,” Klobuchar responded.
He also pushed back against her claim that he wasn’t seriously engaged in political reform as she was working on issues such as immigration in the Senate.
“I’m used to senators telling mayors that senators are more important than mayors, but this is the arena, too. You don’t have to be in Washington to matter,” the presidential candidate said.
And Buttigieg called out Klobuchar’s support for controversial judges appointed by Trump, as well as the president’s pick to head the Customs and Border Protection agency.
Klobuchar didn’t let any of those slights go, coming back each time with a defense and often a zinger that notably addressed Buttigieg as “Pete” ― abandoning candidates’ usual practice of addressing each other by the political title they have most recently held.
“Hello!” Lester Holt of “NBC Nightly News” burst out as he tried to end one of their exchanges. “Hello! Hello! Hello!”
Once the debate ended, Klobuchar appeared to walk off without shaking Buttigieg’s hand.