DIAGONAL, Iowa — Amy Klobuchar was holding two loaves of bread.
It was stop five on the second day of her post-debate bus tour, and she was in Diagonal, a tiny town of just over 300 in the deep southwestern part of the state. A woman known for her fresh bread had brought some loaves as a gift. About two dozen people came to watch Ms. Klobuchar accept them. Later, on “Face the Nation,” she boasted about getting “record crowds” in small towns.
The following day, Pete Buttigieg — in a suit jacket for a change — stepped onto a makeshift stage at a high school gymnasium in Indianola, a city of 16,000 just south of Des Moines. It was his first stop on a two-day swing, and more than a thousand people had showed up to hear him speak.
“Some folks on TV are starting to use the word ‘front-runner’ to describe our standing right here in Iowa,” he said, with a touch of swagger.
Of all the Democratic presidential candidates still in the race, it has been Ms. Klobuchar, the Minnesota senator, and Mr. Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., who have worked hardest and deepest to win over Iowa’s more moderate Democrats, pitching themselves as Midwestern pragmatists who know how to prevail in red states. Both candidates know they have virtually no path to the nomination without a strong finish in Iowa, and in the six weeks that remain before the Iowa caucuses, it’s likely their competition will only intensify.
Both Ms. Klobuchar and Mr. Buttigieg offer messages about restoring unity in America. They speak about their ability to engage independents and Republicans. At campaign events, many attendees say both candidates are in their top tier.
Yet if Ms. Klobuchar and Mr. Buttigieg have become the race’s most talked-about moderate alternatives to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the last weekend before Christmas was also a pointed study in the meaning of momentum. The race is still fluid in Iowa, but Ms. Klobuchar remains in a distant fifth place, behind the top four candidates: Mr. Buttigieg, Mr. Biden, and Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
After an unusually spirited debate in which she took on Mr. Buttigieg directly, Ms. Klobuchar tried to capitalize on the fresh interest in her campaign with a 27-county bus tour. On Saturday, her events were energy-filled if still intimate, her crowds growing but nowhere near the hundreds that some top-tier candidates can draw to their town halls and rallies: Dozens of Iowans packed into a coffee shop in Creston for Ms. Klobuchar. They crowded into a back room in Osceola and sat with her at a local restaurant in Corning.
But when a prominent endorser asked the audience in Osceola who had committed to caucus for Ms. Klobuchar, almost no one raised their hands.
“I don’t think she closed the deal with me today at all,” said Jerry Smith, 67, after the brief event concluded. “It gets right down to electability.” He was still deciding between Ms. Klobuchar and Mr. Biden.
His hesitancy underscored what is now Ms. Klobuchar’s biggest challenge in Iowa: translating curiosity, even traction, into support on caucus night.
Her campaign knows time is running out.
“Everyone always says, ‘I like you, you’re in my top three,’” Ms. Klobuchar said, at stop after stop. “We don’t have time for that anymore.”
Recent polling shows Ms. Klobuchar on the rise, but not nearly at a fast enough pace to eclipse the top-tier candidates. Polls of Iowa voters have been scarce in recent weeks, but those that exist have consistently shown her in fifth place, and an Iowa State University/Civiqs poll released last week showed her with 4 percent support.
Still, among Iowa Democrats, expectations for Ms. Klobuchar have been rising for weeks. Aides see an opportunity for her to pick off moderate voters who are worried about Mr. Biden’s age and Mr. Buttigieg’s inexperience. They think she could attract women who want to vote for another woman but are concerned that Ms. Warren is too liberal.
During her bus tour, she highlighted the endorsements she had received in Iowa, offering them as evidence of her strength but also as a matter of utility: If she must remain in Washington in January for President Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate, these endorsers will double as active surrogates.
But as Ms. Klobuchar and Mr. Buttigieg fight for the state’s center-left, Ms. Klobuchar faces some challenges that Mr. Buttigieg does not.
Though her campaign has doubled its field offices in Iowa and recently brought on Norm Sterzenbach, a veteran Democratic strategist in the state, her operation is still relatively small. She also lacks Mr. Buttigieg’s fund-raising prowess, which could hinder her ability to compete with deeper-pocketed candidates in the race.
And scarred by Hillary Clinton’s loss to Mr. Trump in 2016, some Iowans say they are wary of nominating another woman. David Lange, 58, who came to hear Ms. Klobuchar in Osceola, said he thought she had “a chance to win,” citing her debate performances in particular. But though he said that he himself did not have any qualms about her, he voiced a broader concern: “I think there are still a fair number of people who won’t vote for a woman.”
At the same time, Ms. Klobuchar is plain-spoken in prescribing ways out of what she sees as the country’s ills, with a reach-across-the-aisle legislative record that continues to endear her to people in Iowa. She frequently leans on her wit, flecking her appearances with wry jokes — about her hair, about Mr. Trump — that often prompt appreciative laughs in return. In Creston, she began her remarks balanced on a step ladder — a gesture, it seemed, for people in the back — before professing a fear that she would fall off.
Mr. Buttigieg, on the other hand, is a carefully honed case, so consistently earnest he can come across as monochromatic. In recent days, he has begun speckling his remarks with more populist themes, like the value of work.
“I am running to be a president for the guy who’s up early in the morning in the dark scraping the windshield on his way to the first of the jobs that he is going to do over the course of the day,” he said in Indianola. “Who’s standing up for him?”
His message, at once reliably patriotic and steeped with the conviction that America can do better, has lifted him to the top of recent polls in Iowa, where there is a heavy fixation on selecting a candidate who can beat Mr. Trump.
At this point, he is also managing to do what Ms. Klobuchar is still working toward: turning a surge in interest into firm commitment.
“It’s definitely Pete,” said Brandon Marsh, 39, of Des Moines, who came to see Mr. Buttigieg in Indianola. “I think he has a good grasp on the world.”
Nancy Corkrean, 74, said she had decided about six weeks ago that she would caucus for Mr. Buttigieg.
“I like that he’s middle of the road, he’s all-encompassing, he’s bringing us back together again,” she said. “After I’ve been to one of his campaign events, I feel like we’re healing again, we’re getting back to normalcy.”
Her granddaughter, Sophie Stover, 19, of Winterset, showed a reporter her recently signed commit-to-caucus card, in Mr. Buttigieg’s campaign colors of blue and gold. And Ms. Corkrean’s husband, Pat Corkrean, 79, was getting there as well: He still liked Mr. Biden, but he was “75 percent” for Mr. Buttigieg now, too.
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