Davenport, Iowa (CNN)Sen. Amy Klobuchar has no time to mince words.
It’s lost on no one, of course, she’s talking about Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
After making that point clear during the debate last week in Ohio — calling for a “reality check to Elizabeth” and dismissing some Warren plans as “pipe dreams” — Klobuchar is scrambling to turn her moment on stage into momentum on the campaign trail.
Klobuchar, who has so far qualified for all of the primary debates but continues to see single-digit polling numbers, is in danger of missing the November debate stage.
With less than a month to qualify, a fresh sense of urgency surrounded her candidacy as her green campaign bus rumbled across Iowa on a visit this past weekend. Her itinerary was shaped by a swath of counties President Donald Trump turned red in 2016 that President Barack Obama twice carried.
At every stop, whether shaking hands with one potential supporter at a time or addressing a room of a few hundred, Klobuchar made the case again and again: She can win in Trump country and Democrats can ill afford to choose a nominee who can’t.
In this unsettled stage of the race, she’s testing the appetite for whether hard-core party activists who dependably attend Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses are open to backing a candidate who promotes her progressive record even as she touts the number of Republicans — or former Republicans — who approach her to pledge their support.
“Who do you want heading that ticket? Someone who can really win in the Midwest,” Klobuchar told CNN in an interview aboard her chartered bus, emblazoned with the slogan “Amy for America” in giant letters. “I’m the only one with the track record of actually winning red congressional districts time and time again and suburban purple districts.”
That development prompted this reply from Klobuchar: “I think if she had a good answer, we would have seen it by now. But I look forward to seeing it.”
Their candidacies are far from equal — Warren’s robust grassroots fundraising prowess and wild enthusiasm apparent at most every one of her campaign stops make that evident — but Klobuchar’s assertive questioning of Warren on the debate stage clearly found a receptive audience.
“How is college going to be free? How is health care going to be free? How are we going to close down all private health insurance?” said Susan Strodtbeck, a retired teacher who saw Klobuchar at a town hall meeting in Davenport. “I’m sorry. We can’t do that.”
When she asked Klobuchar about “all that free stuff,” the senator’s face came alive as she joked that the only free offerings her campaign had were the chocolate chip cookies at the back of the room.
While Klobuchar has offered a pragmatic progressive message since she entered the race in February, the decision to sharpen her argument against Warren and Sanders, another top-tier candidate, is a strategic one. Time is running out for her to break out of the crowded field, with a little more than 100 days remaining until the Iowa caucuses kick off the voting early next year.
After sipping a cup of hot coffee, Klobuchar settled back into her seat on the bus, and explained why she believes that her rivals aren’t leveling with voters.
“I’m not at all likening them to Donald Trump, who’s plainly lying all the time,” she said. “But I’m saying that I think this calls for a time when we build trust with people, not by promising everything for free. I know that’s appealing. I would love to have everything for free. You’d love to have everything for free, but I think people know that’s not going to happen.”
She dismissed the possibility of backlash from liberal Democrats to her sharp criticism of Warren and Sanders. She defends her progressive voting record, while making clear that the party needs to appeal to a wider audience of Americans eager to see Trump replaced in the White House.
“There are independents and moderate Republicans — maybe they didn’t vote last time, but they’re watching,” Klobuchar said. “So we better make sure that the message we’re sending out there is one that brings them in as well.”
As she posed for pictures with voters at a brewery in Waterloo, Jerry Rasmussen stood and watched from a distance. He’s a retired truck driver who said he’s fed up with the Trump presidency and learned about Klobuchar from a friend in neighboring Minnesota.
“He’s a Republican and says she does a great job for him up there, you know?” Rasmussen said. “I hope she can get stronger and pull ahead.”