He’s not alone in looking for a backup plan should Mr. Biden implode on the campaign trail.
“I really like him because he is a moderate, and he won in Montana,” Mr. Lovett said, sipping on a can of beer as he pondered Mr. Bullock’s role in the race. “That is like a Democrat winning in Alabama, really.”
Mr. Bullock was one of the latest entrants into the race, but he has staffed up quickly in Iowa, the first state to vote next year.
The 53-year-old father of three has already made eight trips here, including last week’s visit to the Iowa State Fair, where he said he’s got the chops to take on President Trump.
“I come from a place not unlike Iowa, [there are] a whole lot of Trump voters,” Mr. Bullock said. “In 2016, I was the only Democrat in the country to get reelected statewide in a state where Trump won. He took Montana by 20, I won by 4.”
Mr. Bullock says his record of winning and passing “progressive” legislation in a red state could resonate with voters in battleground states in the Midwest and Rust Belt that were crucial to President Trump’s 2016 win.
“I promise you if I am the nominee, I will win the states of California, Massachusetts and Vermont,” Mr. Bullock said at the house party here, drawing laughter from guests. “I would hope those senators from California, Massachusetts and Vermont could make a promise that they would win places like Montana, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin.”
David Stewart, who caught Mr. Bullock’s soapbox appearance at the state fair, said the governor stood out because he was “not pushing the extreme edges of the Democratic Party.”
“Mr. Bullock really impressed the heck out of me, and he doesn’t get the coverage on the evening news here in Des Moines that he should get,” Mr. Stewart said. “If he can get elected in Montana and get things passed through the legislature, I find that interesting.”
Mr. Stewart said he’s one of those voters worried about the 76-year-old Mr. Biden.
A former state attorney general, Mr. Bullock has made stopping the corrupting influence of money in politics a centerpiece of his message.
He touts a veto he issued on a bill that would have blocked late-term abortions involving viable fetuses and the chief role he played in expanding Medicaid through Obamacare.
He signed a bill this year maintaining the Medicaid expansion — and said working on that legislation, which he said keeps coverage for 100,000 Montana residents, was one reason he delayed entering the presidential race.
“If I had to choose between saving health care for 400,000 folks or chasing 100,000 donors? Easiest decision I’d ever make,” he told NPR.
His late entry meant he was slow to build the national donor network and base of polling support needed to qualify for the first presidential debate.
He did make the stage for the second debate, held last month, where he pushed back against “wish-list economics” that have been embraced by the party’s left-most candidates such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernard Sanders of Vermont.
Mr. Bullock warned that his rivals are “playing into Donald Trump’s hands” by endorsing the decriminalization of illegal border crossing and health care for immigrants who are in the country illegally.
Mr. Bullock does have an important backer in Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who has held his post for 37 years and was among the first elected leaders in the state to endorse then-Sen. Barack Obama in the 2008 primary.
Mr. Miller says Mr. Bullock is a “mainstream liberal,” putting him in between the party’s moderates and its left wing. He also does retail politicking well, making him an “exceptional fit for Iowa.”
“He connects with people better than anybody I have ever seen come out here except for Barack Obama, and that is why he does so well in Montana and that is why he has great potential in Iowa,” Mr. Miller said.
Jan Bauer, a member of the Democratic National Committee from Iowa and a Bullock supporter, said the governor offers a “common touch” and stark contrast to his more left-wing rivals.
“When you are in the Senate, you can afford to have a much more liberal point of view because you are not responsible for governing,” she said. “When you are governor, you actually have to implement policies. It brings you to the middle.”
“While I admire all the work that Joe Biden has done and I admire him as a person, I have great hope and expectation that a new face is going to be compelling to new voters,” she said.
“If it is Bernie or Elizabeth or Kamala Harris, I think Democrats are going to have problems,” he said.
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