DES MOINES, Iowa -- In the Democrats’ final presidential debate before the Iowa caucuses, Amy Klobuchar had her moments. Most were positive, though one was not. Overall, Klobuchar had one of her strongest debate performances thus far, and it couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. With just three weeks until Iowans caucus on Monday evening, Feb. 3, Klobuchar has been climbing slowly but steadily in the polls, but still remains in fifth place, well behind her main competitors. 

Dressed in a Republican-red dress and blazer and relegated to the outskirts of the debate stage, the two-term senator from neighboring Minnesota took advantage of every opportunity to continue pressing her case as a moderate, pragmatic, battle-tested, heartland politician who could not only defeat Donald Trump in November but get things done in Washington

More than once Klobuchar chided her more progressive colleagues, referring to their health care proposals as “pipedreams, not plans.” She touted her bipartisan record in the Senate on such issues as trade and prescription drug costs. And she deftly redirected a question about free college tuition to a discussion about aligning the education system with economic opportunity. “We're not going to have a shortage of MBAs,” Klobuchar said. “We're going to have a shortage of plumbers.”

She even went so far as to veer into what has become uncharted territory for modern Democrats – and Republicans, for that matter – in mentioning her plans to reduce the soaring federal budget deficit.

Klobuchar’s low moment came when she was asked to address the critique that a woman couldn’t win the 2020 election.  “I hear that,” she responded, declaring that the only criterion that matters is that “you have to be competent.” To bolster her point, Klobuchar mentioned Michigan’s newly elected governor, Gretchen Whitmer, but then faltered while attempting to name-check Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly. Klobuchar eventually spit out “Governor Kelly,” but it was an awkward moment that immediately drew to mind Rick Perry’s famous debate stage “oops” moment in 2011.

It’s unlikely that the minor stumble will hurt her. The larger question is whether the overall strength of Klobuchar’s debate performance Tuesday night will move the needle in her favor. She has others worries as well.  Her attempts to build on any momentum she may be generating in Iowa are likely to be compromised by what’s happening next week in the nation’s capital. The Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump could begin as early as Monday and could last anywhere from two to eight weeks. 

More than any other candidate in the field, Klobuchar is dependent upon a good showing in the Hawkeye State to keep her hopes alive. To be sitting in the U.S. Capitol during the final days of the race, missing dozens of chances to interact with thousands of Iowa voters, could be fatal.

On the other hand, Klobuchar has an important factor working in her favor: low expectations. With her competitors clustered tightly at the top of the polls, she has a real opportunity to be the “winner” in Iowa without having to win the caucuses. A strong showing on Feb. 3 – edging out Elizabeth Warren for fourth place with 15% of the vote, for example – could be a game-changer. For starters, it would suddenly position Amy Klobuchar as perhaps the most viable female candidate in a political party dependent on women’s votes to win the White House.

 It would also afford Klobuchar the opportunity to offer a narrative about her “momentum” coming out of Iowa. And the media loves nothing more than horse race stories about “Big Mo.”