Amy Klobuchar's mentor, a former vice president, sees a path forward -- and a Plan B

Walter Mondale could be a template for the Minnesota senator's future.

August 26, 2019, 4:07 AM

Amy Klobuchar is no stranger to the vice president's office.

In the late 1970s, she arrived in Washington as a college intern hired by her father's old friend, Walter Mondale. The former senator, vice president and presidential candidate still recalls Klobuchar's excitement at "being in the big town for the first time," even if her day-to-day responsibilities were menial.

"When she came to the vice president's office, she got a job looking at all the furniture to see if it was missing or in usable shape," Mondale told ABC News. "Even then you could see she was truly talented."

Forty years separate Klobuchar's college internship and her campaign for the presidency. At each interim step, Mondale, now 91, has been by her side.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale is seen with Sen. Amy Klobuchar during a swearing-in ceremony for Sen. Tina Smith in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, on January 3, 2018, in Washington D.C.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call,Inc. via Getty Images

"We connected right away," he said. "I really liked her and I've been supporting her ever since."

Now, as Minnesota's senior senator struggles to gain traction in a crowded field of Democrats, her long-time mentor concedes that her path to the White House is uncertain. But he sees hope in neighboring Iowa, and a potential off-ramp if she fails to capture the attention of voters.

"Amy's race has gotten off to a somewhat slow start," he said, but predicted her popularity in the heartland would give her a chance in the all-important Midwest.

Reached for comment, Klobuchar's campaign provided ABC News with a copy of her speech at Mondale's 90th birthday party last year, during which she took the opportunity to thank him for his guidance.

Once a mentor, now 'just a friend trying to help'

For decades in the mid- to late-20th century, Mondale stood as a towering figure in Minnesota and national politics, spending two terms representing the state in the U.S. Senate before joining Jimmy Carter's ticket and serving one term as vice president. His political career ended with a failed bid for the White House in 1984, when Ronald Reagan defeated him and won reelection.

"Mr. Mondale is by far the most respected, beloved and important Minnesota political leader currently alive and has been for many decades," said Jeff Blodgett, a longtime Democrat and Minnesota political operative.

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaks during the first round of the second Democratic primary debate in Detroit, July 30, 2019.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

As Reagan settled back into the Oval Office, Mondale returned to Minneapolis, where he rejoined his old law firm, Dorsey & Whitney. Less than a decade after her internship in Washington, Klobuchar, then fresh out of law school, joined the firm shortly thereafter -- and that's where their relationship deepened, Mondale said.

By 1998, when Klobuchar decided to try her hand at public office as county prosecutor in Hennepin County, which encompasses Minneapolis and the surrounding suburbs, it was Mondale again by her side to help push her across the finish line.

"That's a big, big job, and I did everything I could to help her get elected," he said. "And she won."

Klobuchar kept on winning, too. In fact, she's never lost an election, as Mondale is quick to point out.

She ran unopposed in her 2002 reelection campaign for county attorney, then won back-to-back races for the Senate by substantial margins. During her third Senate reelection in 2018, she won precincts carried by President Donald Trump two years prior.

For her part, Klobuchar credits Mondale with rescuing her first major opportunity to gain national exposure. On the eve of her first Senate campaign, Klobuchar was invited to speak at the 2004 DNC convention. On the morning of her speech, she said, Mondale approached her to make sure she had memorized her speech.

When she told him the teleprompter "should be fine," he shot back, "No, that isn't fine," citing an instance decades earlier when President Jimmy Carter's teleprompter malfunctioned.

"So this advice struck me as a little out-of-date," she told the audience at Mondale's 2018 birthday bash. "But I told him I would memorize my speech, and I did."

Sure enough, she said, the teleprompter went dark during the speech preceding hers.

"From where I stood waiting at the corner of the stage, I could see Walter Mondale -- he was sitting right there in the front row," she said. "I made eye contact with him, and I've never seen a more pointed 'I told you so' nod in my life."

President Jimmy Carter (L) and Vice President Walter "Fritz" Mondale talk at the White House in May, 1977, in Washington, D.C.
David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images, FILE

Challenges on the trail

Despite her success at home, carving out a national constituency has proven elusive for Klobuchar. Her tough questioning during Justice Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation hearings vaulted her onto the national stage, but her presidential campaign lost momentum under the weight of media accounts depicting her hard-nosed management style.

With the Iowa caucuses just months away, a recent nationwide poll conducted by Quinnipiac University shows Klobuchar with just 1% of support, barely clinging to a position among the top 10 Democratic hopefuls.

She has, however, qualified for the third debate next month.

Mondale, of course, is no stranger to the tough realities of politics. With Klobuchar staring down such long odds, Mondale remains in her corner, albeit in a different role.

Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar speaks during the 2020 Public Service Forum hosted by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) at UNLV, Aug. 3, 2019 in Las Vegas.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

"This is not a teacher-learner relationship. It may have been at first, but she's learned it and I'm just a friend trying to help," Mondale said. "She is the most popular public officer in Minnesota's history."

The two speak every couple of weeks, Mondale said, to check in on her campaign and bounce ideas off one another.

"We talk about how she might get some more momentum," he continued. "I like to talk about Iowa and the places where I campaigned a lot, and see what she's seeing and whether it's the same sort of thing that I experienced all those many years ago."

Iowa, he said, is where Klobuchar can make an impression.

All in on Iowa

Mondale has no illusions about Klobuchar's chances of taking the nomination. But in Iowa, he sees a state where "Amy could break out."

"She's enormously popular here. It's hard to explain to outsiders," he said. "And this can take off one of these days when people start thinking about these issues and we get closer to the election. I think Amy could well start to climb rapidly."

Indeed, Klobuchar's prospects in Iowa fare far better than elsewhere in the nation. A statewide Monmouth poll this month showed Klobuchar in sixth place, within only a few percentage points of South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale walks through the Ohio Clock Corridor in the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2015, as the 114th Congress convenes.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call,Inc. via Getty Images, FILE

Larry Jacobs, a political analyst and professor at the University of Minnesota, characterized Klobuchar's strategy in the state as an "Iowa slingshot," which he described as "landing in the top three or five candidates and using that as an opportunity to catapult herself forward into a subsequent state primaries."

Klobuchar's footprint in Iowa reflects the culmination of a long-term, "meticulously planned" political strategy over the course of several statewide election cycles, according to Jacobs.

"She has strategically run advertising campaigns in southern Minnesota media markets, with the aim of both helping herself in those areas ... and also to try to pick up support in Iowa," Jacobs said, adding that her strategy reflects a concerted effort to "establish name recognition and begin to build support in the state for what I think she had long planned to be a presidential run."

Still, if she does not prevail, Mondale points to a familiar Plan B. He says he has "no doubt" she would make a compelling candidate for vice president -- the position he held when the two began their decades-long relationship.

"I think it's important to know she's not running for vice president, she's running for president," Mondale said. "But if it ever got to that, and somebody else was picking a vice president, I don't think they could do better than Amy."