"Some of you have actually experienced firsthand a broken economy," Bullock, clad in a sport coat, jeans and trademark cowboy boots, told 50 Democratic activists in a town square coffee shop. "You shouldn't have to leave your home, your church and your community just to have a decent paycheck."
Emphasizing a theme he referenced a half dozen times in his 20-minute remarks, he asked, "How are we going to make sure that everybody has a fair shot?" Bullock's stop in Newton fits squarely into his contention that he is the best-positioned Democratic hopeful to win over the kinds of voters who tilted the 2016 election to Trump.
The appliance maker Maytag, which made Newton its international headquarters for 100 years, left town in 2007, shedding more than 500 union jobs. Jasper County, whose county seat is Newton, is a microcosm of Iowa, a reliable swing state over the past 20 years that went to Barack Obama twice and then flipped to Trump in 2016.
Bullock's chief argument is that he is a Democrat who has protected Democratic values, opposing abortion restrictions and protecting natural resources, all while winning multiple statewide elections in Montana. Bullock was reelected governor in 2016 while Trump carried the state by 20 percentage points.
Bullock, who announced his candidacy Tuesday, said he had been tied up with Montana legislative business through Monday. But he has been in touch for months with influential Iowa Democratic activists and operatives, visited Iowa five times during the 2018 midterm campaign and has received advice from former aides to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
His message and pragmatic style, including promoting building on Obama's health care law, the Affordable Care Act, rather than endorsing "Medicare for All," echoes that of former Vice President Joe Biden, said Newton Democrat Lisa Cunningham, "but with more energy, and younger."
The 53-year-old Bullock projected an easy style in Iowa, joking about his relationship to the state: "So I'm not talking about my great-grandpa settling in Henry County. I won't tell you my mom was born in Ottumwa."
Bullock faces immediate headwinds from the 76-year-old Biden, an early front-runner in the race thanks to his national profile as a longtime U.S. senator and former vice president. Biden essentially is running a general election campaign, making some of the same arguments as Bullock, but doing so with nearly universal name recognition among the electorate.
Mark Tinnnermeier, a Newton resident, was impressed with Bullock but says he's sticking with his early preference for Biden. "It's more than eight months to the caucuses. I'm inclined to go for Biden, though God only knows what Joe could say between now and then," Tinnermeier said, alluding to Biden's propensity for gaffes. "I caucused for Biden in 2008 and thought he was the most qualified then. He's only more ready now."
Despite the late entry, Bullock claims the first endorsement of a statewide elected Democrat in Iowa, veteran Attorney General Tom Miller. Despite his low profile, Miller, first elected in 1978, carries influence in Iowa's recovering blue-collar towns such as Newton and Dubuque.
Associated Press writer Bill Barrow contributed to this report from Atlanta.