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Seth Moulton, barred from debate stage, is in Miami anyway — and on the attack

Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton.
Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton. Meg Kinnard/Associated Press/Associated Press

MIAMI — Seventeen floors above Biscayne Bay in a gleaming rented condo, Representative Seth Moulton alternated between sounding wistful and critical as he described the first Democratic debate, which he did not qualify for, to a handful of reporters over a plate of shrimp and tropical fruit Thursday.

The 10 presidential candidates who faced off Wednesday night had only a few harried minutes to make their case on national television, but it’s better than watching it play out from an Airbnb, Moulton conceded.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you I preferred to be here opposed to being on the stage, especially when questions like health care and foreign policy came up,” Moulton, a Marine veteran, said. “I think I would have had some unique things to say.“


The three-term Salem congressman, who failed to qualify for the debate stage after registering at 0 percent in 20 of the deciding polls, journeyed to South Florida this week anyway, chasing the migration of reporters and their TV cameras in an effort to boost his stalled candidacy.

It’s a different approach than the one taken by Montana Governor Steve Bullock, for example, another candidate who failed to make the stage but who counterprogrammed with campaign rallies to drum up support in the key early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Moulton instead lined up interviews with national newspapers and TV reporters in Miami, offering detailed critiques of his higher-polling Democratic rivals’ performance. He even watched Wednesday night’s debate alongside a reporter from U.S. News and World Report, telling him that Representative Tulsi Gabbard is “dangerous” and criticizing all 10 Democrats for seeming “angry” as they clashed in real time. He mentioned a complicated relationship with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who RSVPed to his 2017 wedding but then decided at the last minute not to come.


The morning after the debate, Moulton gathered more reporters around and said he saw a lack of leadership on stage, adding that he didn’t know which of the candidates he would follow out of the theater if there had been a fire (and if he had been in the theater in the first place). “Probably Rachel Maddow,” he eventually said, referring to the MSNBC moderator and host.

Instead of feeling discouraged by being shut out of the nationally televised conversation, Moulton says he sees an even clearer case for his own candidacy from the shadow of the debate stage. The candidates raced to the left Wednesday night, leaving a void in the center he wants to fill.

Warren and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio endorsed eliminating private insurance entirely to transition to a Medicare for All health care system, with only one candidate — Senator Amy Klobuchar — raising strong objections to that plan.

“This a great example of where the party is careening to the left in a way that’s not good for policy, it’s not good for electability, and it’s not going to resonate with an awful lot of Americans,” said Moulton, who supports a public option instead of Medicare for All. “Every Republican strategist heard that last night and was salivating.”

Moulton would deliver a tough love message, instead. “A lot of people are up there saying, if I’m president, I’m going to give you a bunch of free things,” he said. “I’m going to ask things of Americans rather than give them a lot of stuff.”


But it’s unclear whether he’ll ever get that chance.

Moulton said his plan is to focus on boosting his poll numbers in order to break the 1 percent threshold to qualify for the next debate in July. He ran his first television spots in Iowa and New Hampshire Wednesday night in an effort to make inroads there. He chafes at the other, harder route to a podium: getting 65,000 people to donate to his campaign.

“It’s a metric that favors people who are on the left because those are the voters who respond to these flashing ‘give a dollar’ e-mails,” he said. “It’s a great example of how the DNC is skewing this process to favor candidates on the left.”

But Moulton, who faces some unrest among liberals in his own district who objected to his unsuccessful coup attempt on Speaker Nancy Pelosi earlier this year, plans to hang on in the presidential race, even if he doesn’t qualify for next month’s debate in Detroit. As a candidate, he’s focused on national security and veterans’ mental health while disclosing his own struggles with post traumatic stress disorder after his deployments during the Iraq War.

“[Jimmy] Carter was at 0.75 percent at this point in the race,” Moulton said. “I think it’s almost absurd to be talking about getting out.”


The threshold for September’s debate gets even tougher. Moulton would have to hit 2 percent in several polls and raise money from 130,000 individual donors.

The congressman wouldn’t say whether he’ll continue to campaign if he doesn’t qualify for that fall debate, but he made the case that a calmer tone is missing from the crowded debate stages this week.

“It wasn’t just a rush to the left, it was a rush to who could be the most passionate and the most angry,” Moulton said to the handful of reporters who remained at Thursday’s breakfast after a few had snuck out early to see Senator Michael Bennet, a candidate who debates Thursday night, speak nearby. “I don’t think that’s what America needs right now.”

He trailed off. “And look, maybe they’re all right, and I’m wrong. They’re on the debate stage and I’m not.”

Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.