Gov. Steve Bullock, Democratic presidential candidate, holds a roundtable discussion

Gov. Steve Bullock, Democratic presidential candidate, holds a roundtable discussion with members of the local media in May at his campaign headquarters in Helena.

Missing the cut for the Democratic National Committee debate Tuesday evening and trailing far behind in national polling, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock leaned on Iowa surrogates to hype his credentials in that first-caucus-in-the-nation state and rally attention to his lagging presidential campaign.

Earlier this month, Bullock announced raising about $2.3 million in the third quarter of 2019, putting him far behind the front-runners. Though his campaign said it doubled the number of individual contributions it received, it failed to meet both donor and polling criteria set by the DNC to appear in Tuesday night's debate. He's been sharply critical of the DNC's rules for getting into the debates, something committee chair Tom Perez defended when in Helena two weeks ago.

In place of a strong national presence, Bullock has focused hard on Iowa, making 13 trips there since announcing his candidacy in May.

Tom Miller is the longest-serving attorney general in the U.S. and an early endorser of Bullock. The Bullock campaign points out frequently that Miller also backed former President Barack Obama in 2008. On a press call Tuesday, Miller said not to discount candidates who aren't doing well on the national playing field, and that it's too early to make any calls about Iowa.

Miller said the "media has begun casting the die before Iowans even head to the caucus," which is Feb. 3.

"This is not my first caucus by any means," Miller said. " ... I've seen candidates who are seemingly written off find their success."

Another well-known Democrat in Iowa, former U.S. Congressman Dave Nagle said on the same call he wasn't endorsing any candidate, but agreed with Miller that there is still time for candidates like Bullock to emerge from the field.

"If it's not the middle of January in Iowa, it's still early," Nagle said.

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Nagle was equally frustrated at how campaigns like Bullock's have been cut out of the debates by the DNC.

Iowa DNC nember Jan Bauer, who has endorsed Bullock, said the obituaries were written far too early on the 2004 John Kerry and 2012 Obama campaigns, and it shouldn't be for the national committee to pick winners and losers.

"As a DNC member it is especially troubling to see how leadership is trying to narrow all those choices," Bauer said.

The process, Bauer said, allows candidates to "buy their way onto the debate stage." She specifically called out billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer for leveraging his personal wealth into advertising that captured enough donors to meet the DNC threshold to appear in the debate.

"Tonight he'll be on the stage despite never having won an election or having served in public office," Bauer said.

Bauer said she thinks Bullock is the "only candidate who can beat Trump," and she along with Miller and Nagle compared him to Obama's 2012 candidacy.

“The way he connects with people is a lot like Barack Obama," Miller said.

Bullock has committed to staying in the race through the Iowa caucus and repeatably ruled out running for U.S. Senate in Montana, which many urged him to do when he announced the presidential bid. While a dozen Democrats prepped to debate Tuesday night in Ohio, the governor spent the day in Butte at the Innovate Montana Symposium and met with staff in Helena.

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