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Yet Mr. Bullock already has the makings of a national stump speech. He boasts about his progressive accomplishments with a Republican-dominated legislature: He expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, cutting the rate of the state’s uninsured by over half, implemented stricter campaign finance laws and made Montana one of the few states to increase support for higher education.

While appealing to the Democratic heart, Mr. Bullock also has a message for the Democratic head. He talks of the party’s need to broaden its appeal beyond the coasts — Mr. Bullock won re-election as Donald J. Trump captured Montana by over 20 points — while implying they cannot turn to a septuagenarian as their nominee.

“There’s a lot of folks out there talking that are a lot older than middle-aged guys like me,” said Mr. Bullock, 51, alluding to some of the party’s best-known figures.

And if the contrast with the likes of Mr. Sanders, 75, were not obvious enough, the governor held up one of his accomplishments against one of Mr. Sanders’s calling cards.

“We can talk free college for all all we want, but there’s a whole lot of people that can get a darn good job, like in Montana, out of an apprenticeship,” Mr. Bullock said, citing programs he has supported as governor. “Sixty-thousand-dollar average salary, and they’re making money while they’re getting there.”

He also said he was uneasy about immediately implementing another of Mr. Sanders’s signature promises, Medicare for all.

He may be more overt about his ambitions, but Mr. Bullock was by no means the only Democratic governor here eyeing the White House.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, the chairman of the National Governors Association, exuberantly led a panel that drew Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada and the Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk, with an eye toward raising his profile. The host governor, Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island, may also be open to a presidential run.

And while each is from a decidedly more Democratic state than Mr. Bullock, both are also unapologetic, business-friendly pragmatists with a focus on economic development that borders on obsessive.

Mr. McAuliffe will not retreat from his support for free trade pacts, slyly noting that he stands with “the president” (as in: Barack Obama) on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

And Ms. Raimondo, noting that “all I’m doing is jobs,” recalled with a touch of incredulity how she recently gave an economic speech and was told afterward by attendees that it was “risky” to “have that pro-growth, pro-job message as a Democrat.”

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Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island at the National Governors Association meeting in Providence.

Credit
Brian Snyder/Reuters

Recounting her efforts to promote apprenticeships in Rhode Island’s shipyards, Ms. Raimondo echoed Mr. Bullock on free college for all. “I don’t care if they ever go and get a four-year degree or not,” she said, warning her party not to be “snobby” about higher education.

The challenge for the would-be presidential contenders on the center left, however, can be found in how Mr. Trump found success.

Unlike Republican nominees before him, the president ran on a platform of racially tinged nationalism, vowing to tear up trade deals and protect entitlements while using language rarely heard from mainstream politicians about minority communities.

In attempting to explain Mr. Trump’s victory, many Democrats have therefore chalked it up to his racial demagogy and rhetorical populism. They find the first of these tactics reprehensible, but many have an impulse to counter the president with their own, more robust brand of populism.

This reaction does not point toward budget-balancing governors preaching pragmatism.

Yet the whims of political fate can be fickle.

After the 2004 election, Democrats’ second consecutive presidential loss, some in the party believed that they could win in 2008 only by nominating a red-state centrist. They won with an African-American Chicagoan named Barack Hussein Obama.

And after their own back-to-back presidential defeats, Republicans said after 2012 that the path back to the White House could be found in nominating a candidate better able to connect with the younger and more diverse rising American electorate. Enter Mr. Trump.

So there may be hope yet for Mr. Bullock, a former state attorney general whose down-home boosterism about Montana’s natural wonders belies a Columbia Law degree and stint as a Washington lawyer at Steptoe & Johnson. He has already started on the Democratic speaking circuit, appearing before a Center for American Progress forum in May. Next week, he will attend another donor-filled gathering on the “Divided States of America” at the Aspen Institute.

To the barricades it is not.

“The values folks want is for government to run its own budgets and be as careful with their money as a family is with their own,” Mr. Bullock said.

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