NASHUA, N.H. — Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana spent last weekend apart from the rest of the Democratic presidential field, which gathered in South Carolina. While the top 20 candidates are in Miami for the first primary debates this week, he isn’t there, either.
Mr. Bullock is aiming to make the best of a debate that, by virtue of using small-dollar donors and early-state polling as criteria for qualification, excluded the two-term, red-state governor in favor of a self-help author, three backbench House members and a businessman who wears hats that say “MATH.”
“You look at this field not having someone that’s won in a Trump state, someone that’s actually taken on the corrupting influence of money, somebody that’s been able to get government to meaningfully function and get things done for people in a divided government, somebody that is outside of Washington — something’s missing,” Mr. Bullock said during an interview between New Hampshire campaign stops Saturday.
[The first Democratic debate is tonight. Here’s everything you need to know.]
Five weeks into his presidential campaign, Mr. Bullock, 53, has run headfirst into the realities of the modern political environment.
As one of 10 white men fighting for relevance from the lower echelon of a Democratic field dominated by a diverse list of well-known names and social media sensations, Mr. Bullock is aiming to translate the retail campaigning skills that powered his three statewide victories — each in years when a Republican presidential nominee carried Montana.
Mr. Bullock sells himself as a member of the I-won-and-got-things-done caucus, a group that includes Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado and former Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado. They are betting on personal appeal and a political record over far-reaching policy proposals.
Also crucial to their success: the collapse of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s campaign.
“With the front-runners, if they put their foot in their mouth in the next two months, it gives the people in the second tier an opportunity,” said Fred Keach, a Concord, N.H., city councilor who ran into Mr. Bullock at a street festival in the shadow of the state Capitol.
Mr. Bullock remains little known. A poll conducted this month by The Des Moines Register and CNN found 71 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers in Iowa had no opinion of him. In New Hampshire, after he had introduced himself as the governor of Montana, voters asked, “Are you running for president?”
The Bullock campaign has turned his failure to qualify for the first presidential debates into a days-long story of its own, booking him on cable news and producing a video featuring a grizzled Montanan who, using an expletive, compared his debate exclusion to horse manure. As his rivals meet in Miami for the debate, his campaign has arranged for town-hall-style events on local television in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, who like Mr. Bullock did not qualify for this week’s debates, purchased TV ad time in early states and plans a raft of appearances on cable news this week, according to his campaign.
“Not everybody wakes up and goes to sleep each night wondering about who’s going to be on the debate stage,” Mr. Bullock said, before noting that last week he crossed the polling threshold to qualify for the party’s second set of debates, in July.
And instead of joining the rest of the field in South Carolina for a fish fry and state Democratic Party convention over the weekend, Mr. Bullock was in New Hampshire pitching himself as a younger, fresher version of Mr. Biden, who leads in the polls and has consolidated the just-win-baby lane of the primary race.
His chief argument is that he is the only candidate in the race who won a statewide election in a state that President Trump carried. Mr. Bullock ran 25 percentage points ahead of Hillary Clinton in 2016, with the difference particularly notable in Montana’s rural areas. Hill County, along the Canadian border, backed Mr. Bullock and Mr. Trump each by 17 percentage points.
“The clincher for him is connecting with people,” said Tom Miller, the Iowa attorney general who is Mr. Bullock’s most prominent supporter outside his home state. “He connects with people better than anybody I’ve seen except Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.”
Mr. Bullock grew up in Helena, Montana’s capital, where he delivered newspapers to the governor’s residence in which he now lives with his three children. After law school he worked in Washington before returning home to Montana, where he became known for his fight for campaign finance transparency, which was featured in the 2018 documentary film “Dark Money.” He delayed the start of his presidential campaign until mid-May in order to shepherd a six-year extension of Montana’s Medicaid expansion through the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature.
His electability-and-results pitch echoes those of the former vice president — though Mr. Bullock’s stump speech makes only winking reference to Mr. Biden, who for decades represented Delaware in the Senate — and the presidential race’s other poll leader, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
“I think Montana can teach Washington, D.C., a lot,” Mr. Bullock told a few dozen people gathered in the living room of Joseph A. Foster, a former New Hampshire attorney general, in Nashua. “Some of you think, ‘Oh, Montana, it’s just a small state somewhere.’ There’s a greater population than states like Vermont or Delaware, I’m just throwing that out there.”
While Mr. Bullock’s political successes in Montana left him fluent in the language of working with Republicans, his first presidential campaign swing through New Hampshire revealed he was less adept at discussing some of the issues animating the Democratic Party’s progressive base.
In interviews and during question-and-answer sessions with Mr. Bullock, several voters volunteered that he was the only candidate who, in video interviews published by The New York Times last week, supported the death penalty in some cases.
[We tracked down the 2020 Democrats and asked them the same set of questions. Watch them answer.]
He also expressed surprise when an A.C.L.U. volunteer asked whether he would pledge to abolish cash bail, a system several candidates — including Mr. Sanders, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Kamala Harris of California and former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas — have said should end because it disproportionately affects the poor.
“So how would you make sure that they return?” he said. “The bail is the security to make sure that somebody reappears for a court appearance.”
Mr. Bullock is not the sort of partisan warrior who will generate headlines and excitement among the party base. At the Concord street festival, he dodged local activists’ attempts to get him to publicly criticize the state’s Republican governor, Chris Sununu, for making it harder for out-of-state students at New Hampshire’s colleges to register to vote.
“I’m the National Governors Association chair,” Mr. Bullock said. “I can’t do that.”
His reception in New Hampshire was friendly, yet typically restrained. In interviews, voters and officials said they planned to wait months before committing to a candidate and would base their decisions on who appears viable in public polling.
“I like him, but he’s a one-percenter,” Michael Pedersen, a New Hampshire state representative, said at Mr. Bullock’s Nashua house party, referring to the governor’s low standing in the polls. “He’s not even a one-percenter yet. I want my vote to go to somebody who is going to succeed, I want my vote to count.”
Cindy Rosenwald, a state senator from Nashua, said the size of the Democratic field had increased the difficulty for candidates outside the top tier.
“He’s going to have to make a big splash to make it through,” she said. “Maybe he can do that. But it’s such a crowded field. I always wonder, Why do people want to do this?”
Mr. Bullock gamely encountered the indignities of being a little-known and late-arriving candidate in a state flooded with White House hopefuls.
A diner tour took Mr. Bullock to Blake’s, a breakfast and ice cream spot on Manchester’s west side, where most of the patrons were gathered for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in a back room, off-limits for political glad-handing.
Later at Chez Vachon, a French Canadian greasy spoon that has long been a staple of presidential photo-ops, Mr. Bullock encountered Bob Kittler, a chief financial officer from nearby Bedford, who was eating breakfast with his wife and college-age daughter.
“Are you going to be on the debate stage?” Mr. Kittler asked Mr. Bullock.
“I got in a little late,” Mr. Bullock replied. “I’m not on for June, but I am in July.”
Mr. Miller, Mr. Bullock’s Iowa ally, said the campaign’s goal was to emerge from the morass of second-tier candidates as a top-five candidate by the end of the year. That, Mr. Miller said, would make Mr. Bullock viable when Democrats make final decisions beginning in February.
“He’s got a long way to go,” Mr. Miller said. “He’s starting from ground zero and he’s starting late. The potential is there. Whether it happens or not, nobody knows.”