As his 10 top competitors were in Houston prepping for a big night on national television last week, Democratic presidential candidate and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock was 900 miles north in a suburban Des Moines brewpub.
The governor wasn't drowning his sorrows over failing to qualify for the primary debate, but he wasn't exactly hiding his disappointment from the crowd that gathered to hear his pitch on a Thursday afternoon. "There may be one place I'd rather be than in Clive tonight," he acknowledged.
The governor's failure to break into the top 10 — getting beat out by a tech entrepreneur and the mayor of South Bend, Indiana — may have marked a moment for presidential politics. Being a governor who promised bipartisan appeal and executive experience used to be a profile for primary success. Thanks to Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, the can-do, outsider governor has been a storied character in presidential politics. Today, that model is looking increasingly outdated.
All three governors who launched bids this year struggled to build national profiles and donor bases needed to thrive. They found themselves immediately competing against multiple candidates with celebrity status, name recognition and well-known positions on national issues. Their campaigns in Iowa and New Hampshire haven't caused a ripple.
Bullock is the last governor standing. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee bailed last month to run for reelection. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper retreated to a Senate race. Bullock is also under pressure to run for Senate, but he says he's not interested.
"Just about every governor in the country thinks that they can be the next Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton, but presidential politics has changed a lot since then," said Alex Conant, who served as communications director for Minnesota Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's failed 2012 presidential campaign. "It's really hard for governors to raise the resources and build the sort of national name ID that is required to build a successful presidential campaign in the modern era. ... Governors bring executive experience and a track record of getting things done, but there's not a lot of evidence that voters are looking for that."
Democratic voters maintain one of their top priorities is to defeat President Donald Trump, but there's a deep divide over the best way to do it. Bullock, an amiable, cowboy-booted former state attorney general, is making his pitch to primary voters who think the best path is to win over moderates. He touts his record of winning in a state that voted for Trump by double digits. He argues he can work with Republicans.
"The core of the word progressive is progress," Bullock said in an interview. "I haven't been able to just give speeches. I've actually had to get stuff done."
His problem is that he's not the only one carrying that message, said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who managed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign. Bullock's biggest challenge is former Vice President Joe Biden, a well-known candidate who can also show he's pragmatic, can work across party lines and has administrative experience running a government, Trippi said.
"There's a bigger player in the race that's sort of dominating that area," he said.
The large primary field and Trump's ability to commandeer national attention for days are making it hard for any candidate to sustain attention. That's complicated by the Democratic National Committee requiring candidates to have 130,000 unique donors and at least 2% in four approved polls to qualify for the September and October debate stage.
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Bullock has been critical of the rules, saying they create a "Hunger Games"-style competition and force candidates to spend $60 on social media ads in order to earn a $1 donation. After he failed to qualify for the September debate, his campaign released a memo to donors reminding them that it's early and that polls in past years eventually changed.
What's clear is the DNC's debate rules have forced candidates to spend time and money fundraising and introducing themselves around the country instead of hunkering down in Iowa, the first state to weigh in on the primary field.
Jimmy Carter, a former Georgia governor, staked his fortunes on Iowa before the 1976 Democratic presidential caucuses, camping out in the state to sell himself as a proud Washington outsider. His second-place showing, behind uncommitted, transformed him from a longshot — worthy of a "Jimmy who?" headline — to top tier and set him on a path to the White House. In 1992, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton lost Iowa to native son Tom Harkin but used a second-place showing in New Hampshire to come back and build momentum behind his bid.
That model isn't necessarily dead, "but it's very hard" to win if a candidate can't make the debate and is banking only on grassroots campaigning in early states, said former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who considered a 2020 presidential run but decided against it.
McAuliffe said because governors hold an executive office, it's harder for them to skip on their day job and spend time in Iowa, whereas a missed vote or two in a log-jammed Congress isn't as problematic for senators.
"A sitting governor has to be in their state. You are actually running a state," McAuliffe said. "You've got to deal with natural emergencies. You've got to deal with your legislature. ... You can't be out of your state that much."
McAuliffe said governors might have more luck in future years, but Democrats' overwhelming concern about defeating the president and the crowded field has scrambled the game.
To try to hang on, Bullock has been making more frequent appearances on cable news, and his campaign has also dabbled with viral, buzzy content to lure in small donors. After Trump proposed that the U.S. buy Greenland, Bullock's campaign quickly released a website mocking the idea and urging people to donate a dollar.
Bullock said that even if he doesn't make the debate stage, he's planning to hang on until the Iowa caucuses in February.
"We still have to recognize we're still six months before the first voters express their preference, so we've got a long way to go," he said.