DUBUQUE, Iowa — In this Democratic enclave on the banks of the Mississippi River, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock made his pitch Friday that he can be the presidential candidate who can unite a divided nation — and defeat Donald Trump in 2020.
“We know that we’re better when we find common values, not when we divide into warring camps,” he told a crowd of 100 people at a downtown restaurant. “We’re better when everybody has a fair shot — not just those with money. When we can allow everybody’s voice to be heard as opposed to no one’s.”
It’s the message Bullock hopes can propel his long-shot candidacy to relevance — and that he road-tested Friday in his first full campaign day in the state that often makes or breaks a bid for the presidency.
The Iowa caucuses next Feb. 3 are the nation’s first presidential nominating contest for 2020.
Bullock, who on Tuesday became the 21st Democratic presidential candidate in a field that’s since grown to 23, is planning to spend at least two-thirds of his campaign time in the Hawkeye State, which prides itself on its retail brand of politics and first-in-the-nation test for presidential candidates.
“We take our politics pretty seriously here in Iowa,” said Lisa Cunningham, a Democrat who attended Bullock’s first Friday talk with about 75 people at a coffee shop in Newton, which is 35 miles east of Des Moines.
Some who came to hear and meet Bullock Friday said they’re a supporter. But most who spoke with MTN News said they’re still in the window-shopping mode, checking out the Montana governor as they have many other candidates who’ve already come calling.
Judy Stevens, also from Newton, said she was “pleasantly surprised” to find out that Bullock has some knowledge about agricultural and trade policy and rural development.
“I knew Big Sky Country has a lot of mining, but I didn’t really see him as invested in agriculture,” she said. “So that really gave him a little kick for me.”
After Newton, Bullock paid a visit to the Meskwati Indian Settlement near the small town of Tama, telling the small crowd about his economic-development work with Native American tribes in Montana.
Donnielle Wanatee, who chairs the Native American caucus in Iowa’s first congressional district, said Bullock is the first Democratic presidential candidate to visit the settlement.
Yet she told MTN News she was underwhelmed by Bullock’s explanation about why he supported “clean coal,” which she said isn’t really clean.
“He seems little too vague,” Wanatee said. “I’d like to have him pinpoint his stands on a lot more issues. But I think that’s why he’s coming here, to test the heartbeat of the nation, because that’s what Iowa is, the heart of this nation.”
Bullock’s message Friday focused on several things: His record of working across the aisle with Republicans in the Montana Legislature to accomplish things like expanding Medicaid coverage, his fight against undisclosed “dark money” in politics, including the passage of a 2015 Montana law requiring its disclosure, and the need for Democrats to appeal to disenchanted voters who feel the economy has left them behind.
“Whether it’s Montana or Iowa, whether it’s Michigan or Wisconsin, if we’re writing off places just because either they didn’t voice for us last time, or they’re not part of our party’s base, we’ll never going to be able to bridge the divide to actually get things done,” he said in Newton.
He was also accompanied this week by longtime Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who on Thursday endorsed Bullock for president. Miller notably endorsed Barack Obama in 2008. Obama won the Iowa caucus that year, and Miller told Iowans on the tour this week that Bullock, like Obama, treats all people with respect and listens to their side of the issue.
“I think (Bullock) connects with people out here in Iowa better than anyone I’ve ever seen, except for Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, and we need someone who connects with people, working people, rural people, liberals, Democrats, Republicans,” Miller said. “I think he can do it.”
Of course, it’s a long way until February, and Bullock has 22 competitors, including many with national profiles and bigger campaign bank accounts. Still, some in this bellwether state said he might have a chance.
“I hope that you find this heartening that, in a little town like Newton, that you have this big of a turnout for someone who’s just thrown his hat in the ring, like, what was it? Monday? Tuesday?,” said Cunningham. “And this is Friday.”