Nation gets first look Wednesday at (most of) the Democratic presidential candidates

A few, like Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, will not share in the TV spotlight

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democratic candidate for president, speaks at a May 17 campaign event in Newton. To his ri
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democratic candidate for president, speaks at a May 17 campaign event in Newton. To his right is Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who has endorsed him. But Bullock didn’t make the cut for the first round of nationally televised candidate debates this week. (Erin Murphy/Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau)

DES MOINES — Montana Gov. Steve Bullock will be on the outside looking in from Iowa when most of his 2020 Democratic presidential rivals debate this week in their first nationally televised encounter — but he hopes that will turn out to be a good thing.

Bullock, a late entry into the double-digit candidate field who failed to qualify under party rules to be on debate stage in Miami, will miss out on a chance to be seen by a broad audience but plans to turn the situation into a positive by wooing support in the state where the nominating process begins next February.

“I’m certainly disappointed because missing from that stage will be somebody who’s actually won in a Trump state and who’s been a governor that’s gotten things done,” Bullock said.

“I think being from outside of Washington, D.C., brings a differing perspective for sure on both the way we approach policies and the way we actually approach governing,’ added the Montana Democrat as he prepared to spend Wednesday delivering pizza to his campaign’s phone-bank operation in Des Moines and participating in a town hall meeting before a central Iowa TV audience.

The first round of the Democratic presidential debates is set for Wednesday and Thursday. The 20 candidates who qualified are divided into two groups of 10 — the first group taking the stage Wednesday and the second going on Thursday.

Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford said Bullock will miss out on a chance to introduce himself to a national TV audience and give viewers a sense of who he is — at least for now, as Bullock has qualified for the second round of debates in July. But he also will avoid the possibility of a “Rick Perry oops” moment that doomed the former Texas governor’s 2016 Republican candidacy.

“It’s not great when you’re left off like that. That certainly puts you at an increased disadvantage over the one you already had, which is nobody knew who you were,” said Goldford.


But he also questioned whether any candidate will score a breakout moment while sharing a stage with nine others. Historically, Goldford said, televised debates have “tended to do very little” other than shape the narrative for media and professional observers. Seldom does a clear winner emerge from “this kind of mass situation” — yet occasionally that venue could hurt a candidate, he said.

“Think if you’re a G.I. or a soldier or something trying to get through a mine field and success is simply getting through the field without blowing anything up, including yourself. That’s success. So getting through the mine field uninjured, that’s the key thing,” the political scientist noted.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is the perceived front-runner with a history of making gaffes, probably “has more to lose from this than to win” when he takes the stage Thursday, Goldford said.

“I don’t think it’s going to do a lot for the also-rans,” he said. “There are reasonable chances for this not to make much of a blip unless somebody self-destructs in a nuclear way.”

One of the “also-rans” in recent Iowa polling who has been running the longest, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, sees the Democratic National Committee’s debates as a way to draw contrasts between his moderate candidacy and Democrats competing in the far-left political lane, according to his national press secretary, Michael Starr Hopkins.

Hopkins said he expects Delaney to make the case why the Medicare-for-all health care plan offered by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and advocated by other candidates and the Green New Deal environmental approach are unaffordable and unworkable.

“Removing 150 million Americans from their option to have private insurance is the surest way for us to lose to President Donald Trump come the general election,” Hopkins told reporters Tuesday. “John has made the case that capitalism is the best path forward,” he added. “By putting forth a socialist, like Sen. Sanders, we will guarantee that Donald Trump will run on a platform that ensures his reelection and that’s not what Democrats want and based on polling information, that’s not what Americans want.”

Due to a field of two dozen candidates, Democratic National Committee organizers split the field into two, two-hour debates each featuring 10 candidates. The debates are slated to air on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo at 8 p.m. central time each night.


Candidates for Wednesday night include New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former Housing Secretary and San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, Delaney, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

“It’s going to be a dogfight on Wednesday. Let’s not kid ourselves. Everybody is going to be throwing haymakers and trying to make news. We’re going to try to look like the adults in the room and be more about substance than about flash,” Hopkins said. “I think so far that’s worked for us and we’ll see Wednesday night, but I expect it to. We’re going to go out and try to make our case and make a little bit of a splash and see kind of where we go from there.”

For Thursday night, the stage will feature Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, Biden, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, California Sen. Kamala Harris, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Sanders, California Rep. Eric Swalwell, author Marianne Williamson and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

Besides Bullock, Miramar, Fla., Mayor Wayne Messam, Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton and recent entry former Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak did not qualify.

Addisu Demissie, Booker’s campaign manager, calculated that each debate participant would have between seven and 11 minutes to speak. Booker’s goal will be to introduce himself anew to many Democratic primary voters and caucusgoers tuning into the 2020 presidential race for the first time.

“For them, the presidential race is just beginning, with the Iowa caucuses still 223 days away, ‘ Demissie said in an email Tuesday. “In fact, just over one-third of Democratic voters (35 percent) say they have been paying a lot or a good deal of attention to the election campaign for president. About two-thirds (65 percent) have been paying some to no attention at all.”

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