By Dan Merica and Jeff Zeleny
(CNN/CBS4) – It didn’t take long for Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado lawmaker who is actively exploring a 2020 presidential run, to realize how much Democrats in Iowa knew about him as he stepped into the first event of his first trip to the state.
Frozen on the big screen TV of the living room was Bennet’s recent viral speech lambasting Republican Sen. Ted Cruz on the Senate floor. In the speech, Bennet, a mild-mannered lawmaker who speaks with an air of pragmatic optimism, passionately talks about the government shutdown and raises his voice as he accuses Cruz of “crocodile tears” for lamenting a tactic he once used himself.
It was a performance that many in Helen Varner’s living room on Thursday said belied the way Bennet carries himself in person, something even the senator recognized.
“I am glad you are not playing that now,” he said to the small audience, “because I would say, ‘God, I don’t want to follow that guy.'”
Bennet’s explosive moment last month has become his calling card, giving the senator a way into conversations with groups that a few short months ago wouldn’t have known him.
What’s less clear is whether that’s enough to launch him in a field already bursting with presidential candidates.
“I don’t think it defines my time in the Senate,” Bennet told CNN while sitting on Varner’s couch, adding he’s “fine” with the fact people first learned about him from the speech.
“It is just one speech, but it does give me a sense that there are people who are open to that message and there are people who just don’t want to accept such a profoundly pitiful notion of what our government could accomplish.”
For those Iowans considering backing a possible Bennet run, the speech was as good a start as any.
“That is where I got introduced to him,” said Varner, the 70-year-old host of Bennet’s first event. “I sat and watched the whole thing and then I went back and watched it on YouTube. … I have probably watched it four or five times in its entirety.”
“That was the moment for me,” said Kim Mangers, a 59-year-old Democrat from Dubuque. “It made me feel like he is there for the people.”
Even with the encouragement of people such as Varner and Mangers, though, Bennet’s next task is convincing voters his eye-catching speech wasn’t the beginning and the end of what he has to offer in a growing field of Democrats running for the chance to take on President Donald Trump.
Bennet isn’t prepared to say what makes him better than those Democrats — many of whom are his colleagues in the Senate — who are already running. And he says he is firmly on his own timeline.
“When I am ready, I will let you know,” he said.
The Colorado Democrat also said he welcomed a bigger field — “My view is the more the merrier,” he said — and believes it will strengthen the eventual nominee.
But, as he ponders whether to run himself, he offered one difference between him and the series of other candidates: geography.
“This should be obvious to everyone, but geographically, I’m just one state away from here,” Bennet said, with only Nebraska separating Iowa from Colorado.
As he made his way across Iowa, Bennet walked into a living room Saturday at an acreage outside Winterset, the town made famous in the book and movie “The Bridges of Madison County.” Even to Democratic activists attuned to party politics, he needs an introduction.
“Hi, I’m Michael Bennet,” he says again and again, moving from group to group.
Vickie Brenner, who was hosting Bennet in her family’s home, tried to help people make a familiar connection and burnish his progressive credentials.
“Like many of you, I saw the video!” Brenner said as she introduced the visiting senator. “How many of you saw him take it to Ted Cruz on the Senate floor?”
Several hands went up across the room of about three dozen people, with heads nodding in acknowledgment.
Bennet is pitching himself as a pragmatic lawmaker who has a progressive voting record but who also knows what it takes to win in an electorally split state such as Colorado. He leans heavily on his education roots — he was the superintendent of Denver Public Schools before joining the Senate in 2009 — and calls education the “single biggest issue” the country faces.
While taking questions about the changing climate, money in politics, economic opportunity and more, his answers are long — like a senator who suddenly isn’t constrained by a committee hearing’s time clock.
“I apologize,” he said at one point Saturday after talking at such length he had to leave before he could answer all of the questions in the room.
He talks about how Washington should be, not how it is. He talks more about the Capitol than the White House.
He also doesn’t take a firm stand on some of the central issues driving the campaign debate. When a voter asks whether he’s concerned about the party being pulled too far to the left, he doesn’t directly answer, but calls for building coalitions to achieve progress.
“I’m not going to pass judgment one way or another on the Green New Deal,” he said when asked by a voter about the plan that is dividing some Democrats over its practicality. “I’m not in any way saying anything negative about the Green New Deal.”
To some, though, Bennet’s pitch makes him a “moderate,” as one woman in Iowa called him during a question and answer session Thursday.
Bennet flinched at the moniker.
“Well,” he said, before describing himself as a “pragmatic idealist.”
“Anyone who thinks they’re a progressive should be interested in making progress,” he said.
While some of Bennet’s policy proposals do fall in line with progressives in his party, his view of Medicare for All — the sweeping health care plan being pushed by Sen. Bernie Sanders and a host of other 2020 candidates — is more centrist, a fact that the senator doesn’t run away from.
“I’m concerned about that bill,” he said, noting he has concerns with the Medicare for All bill backed by Sanders would do to employer-backed insurance plans that most Americas have. “I don’t think that is a good starting point.”
If he enters the race — a decision he told CNN on Saturday that he would make “soon” — he would undoubtedly be pushed to take a specific stand on progressive plans like the Green New Deal.
With so many of his fellow Democrats already seeking the party’s nomination, the fact that he’s exploring a bid of his own raises the question of what he believes is missing from the current field.
“I’m not sure it’s about something missing. I think it just happens to be a moment in history when we’re going to have a billion people on our side and I think that’s good,” Bennet said in an interview Saturday. “I think it was a tragedy for us to lose to Donald Trump — unconscionable that we lost to Donald Trump. We’ve got to find a way back from there, not just to win, but to govern the country as well.”
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper also tested the campaign waters in Iowa. He spoke in Sioux City about education, legalizing marijuana and working together.
“Part of what I’ve done in Colorado, and what I’d love to do for the country, is be able to bring people together who have been feuding and at each others throats. Get them to put down their weapons, find common ground and actually get stuff done,” Hickenlooper said.
He’s expected to make an official announcement about running for president sometime in March.
(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. CNN contributed to this report.)