Rep. Seth Moulton, a Harvard-educated Marine veteran, failed to qualify for this week’s Democratic presidential debates — depriving his 2020 bid of a prized moment in the national spotlight.
But Moulton (D-Mass.) and others who missed the cut still sought out attention Wednesday in the hours before the debate hosted by NBC News, meeting with voters and insisting that they have a shot at the nomination despite lingering near 1 percent or less in the polls.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock spent the day in Iowa and held a town hall meeting. Wayne Messam, mayor of Miramar, Fla., was in Miami, the site of the debate, for a television appearance. Moulton was there, too, to make the media rounds and drop by a reception for Florida Democrats.
And before flying to Miami, Moulton was interviewed at a Washington Post Live event, where he described himself as an unapologetic moderate in a Democratic Party that has leaned to the left in recent years. He also shrugged off his slow start this summer and said Democrats in early voting states would eventually give his campaign a look.
“I’m not going around doing crazy things just looking for a viral moment,” Moulton said. “The case I’m making to the American people is that I’m not a crazy leader. I’m someone that you can trust, and you’re not going to agree with me on everything.”
On immigration, for instance, Moulton took a more moderate position than one of his rivals, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who ahead of the debate called for decriminalizing border crossings.
“If you cross the border illegally, then that’s illegal,” Moulton said. “I want a system that encourages them to come legally. I think that that plan would do the opposite.”
While Moulton dismissed President Trump’s hard-line tactics and his proposed border wall as effective responses to the influx of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, he said a “targeted aid program to Central America” is needed to “stop the violence that is making all these people flee for their lives.”
Moulton’s path ahead in a crowded field remains uncertain and challenging, with many moderate Democrats coalescing behind former vice president Joe Biden and the party’s influential base voters rallying behind liberal stalwarts such as Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Moulton failed to meet the standards for the June debates: He was unable to register 1 percent support in three polls used by the Democratic National Committee or to draw donations from 65,000 people. Later debates will have more-stringent qualifications.
When asked whether he is frustrated with the DNC’s debate rules, Moulton said, “I’m not sure they have the best system set up to actually pick the best nominee to take on Donald Trump.” But, he said, he had known that since he got into the race in April “there was a good chance I’d miss the first debate.”
Bullock has been more upfront about his unhappiness with the DNC’s selection process. In mid-June, his campaign released an ad in which a supporter used an expletive when grousing about how Bullock, a red-state Democratic governor, was not able to appear in the first debate.
Bullock later tweeted: “If we don’t take back the places we lost in 2016, Trump will win. We can’t lose sight of that.”
Moulton, 40, who served four tours of duty in Iraq and was the recipient of a Bronze Star, is one of three young veterans in the Democratic presidential field, alongside Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind.
Moulton has put an emphasis on foreign policy and national security as he has traveled to Veterans of Foreign Wars halls in New Hampshire and South Carolina. He warned Wednesday that war with Iran would be “very bloody” and recalled the accuracy of mortar fire lobbed at U.S. troops by Iranian proxies during his second tour in Iraq.
“I have seen the cost of intervention in very real, human terms. That doesn’t mean intervention is off the table. It should always be a threat,” Moulton said. “But we better exhaust every other alternative before we put young American lives in danger.”
He then questioned Trump’s patriotism and integrity, citing Trump’s medical deferment from service in Vietnam — a deferment Moulton called “fake.”
“I’d like to meet that American hero some day who went in Donald Trump’s place. And I hope he’s still alive,” he said.
Moulton appeared less willing to sharply critique his Democratic competition, even as he struggles to gain traction.
When asked Wednesday about Biden’s past vote to authorize the Iraq War and whether it should be a “dealbreaker” with Democratic primary voters, Moulton said, “I don’t think it should be a dealbreaker,” calling Biden a “mentor and friend of mine.”
On Biden’s own medical deferment from Vietnam after an asthma diagnosis, Moulton said, “As far as I know, they were legitimate deferments, and that’s very different than lying about bone spurs.”
Beyond his decorated military service and insurgent primary victory against a longtime incumbent in a Massachusetts congressional primary in 2014, Moulton has won notice nationally for being a political rebel in the House, where he co-organized an effort to stop Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) from winning the speaker’s gavel.
Moulton rejected the suggestion Wednesday that his work against Pelosi’s speaker bid — he eventually supported her after weeks of talks — has hurt his presidential campaign with activists and donors allied with Pelosi.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Moulton said. “It makes me a much stronger nominee that I was willing to take on our leadership here in Washington, not a weaker nominee.”
Moulton added: “Oh, she saw me last night and said, you know, good luck and everything. And she knows I’m going down to Miami. She came up to me, actually, to say that. I was flattered.”