North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum entered the Republican race for president Wednesday, offering himself as a candidate of "small town values" who can help steer the country in a different direction.
"We need a leader who understands the real work that Americans do every day — someone who’s worked alongside our farmers or ranchers and our small-business owners," Burgum said during his announcement speech in Fargo. "Someone who’s held jobs where you shower at the end of the day, not at the beginning."
Burgum, 66, is the latest addition to a field that is expanding with GOP hopefuls eager to assert themselves as the most appealing alternative to the front-runner, former President Donald Trump.
Early polls have shown Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as the strongest Trump rival. But DeSantis' weeks-old campaign has not persuaded others to stand down.
Burgum’s entry followed a Tuesday night launch in New Hampshire by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and came about an hour ahead of former Vice President Mike Pence’s expected campaign kickoff in Iowa.
"We need a leader who’s experienced firsthand that we win as a country when our innovators and entrepreneurs can soar and when every single person can grow and thrive," Burgum added. "We need a leader who’s clearly focused on three things: economy, energy and national security. And that is why today I'm officially announcing I'm running for president of the United States."
A former businessman who years ago turned a small software company into a $1.1 billion deal with Microsoft, Burgum begins as a long shot in a crowded primary. The Republican National Committee’s recently released criteria for qualifying for the first presidential debate in August include specific polling and fundraising thresholds that could be tough for someone so unknown outside North Dakota. One CNN poll last month placed Burgum — who besides DeSantis is the only other sitting governor in the race, but one with a much lower profile — at 1% nationally.
In an interview last month with NBC News, the multimillionaire Burgum said he would invest his own money in the campaign, though he did not disclose how much he is willing to spend.
“I’ve always had my own skin in the game,” Burgum, who also self-funded his bids for governor, said at the time.
After his announcement, Burgum spent more than 30 minutes shaking hands in the crowd as "Every Small Town" by country musician Ben Gallaher — complete with the lyric "We're the underdog" — blared on repeat.
Burgum plans to focus on traditional pro-business — and pre-Trump — GOP issues: the economy, energy and national security. He sees a path for himself by avoiding the culture wars that Trump and DeSantis have embraced.
"Woke was what you did at 5 a.m. to start the day," Burgum — alluding to a DeSantis-favored pejorative for those who push for equality and inclusion — said in a video released earlier this week to preview his candidacy.
"Anger, yelling, infighting — that's not gonna cut it anymore," Burgum added later in the video. "Let's get things done. In North Dakota, we listen with respect and we talk things out. That's how we can get America back on track."
Burgum himself has signed legislation restricting abortion and transgender rights, but he has not emphasized the issues as much as other Republicans have. Asked last month why he believes higher-polling candidates like Trump and DeSantis aren't talking as much about the economy, energy or national security, he resisted criticizing his soon-to-be rivals.
"I'll leave that to pundits and analysts to try to figure out why they're not," Burgum said. "From my perspective — coming as a CEO, as an entrepreneur, as an innovator — those are the levers that we have to pull for America to remain competitive. And we know that's what we have to do for us to have the strongest economy in the world. In my mind, there's not a debate. Those are the top three things that we've got to talk about."
Karoline Leavitt, a spokesperson for MAGA Inc., the super PAC backing Trump's campaign, issued a statement Wednesday that simultaneously swiped at Burgum and DeSantis, who has played up his family's roots in Ohio and western Pennsylvania.
"Unlike Ron DeSantis, Doug Burgum doesn’t have to point to relatives to claim Midwestern credentials," Leavitt said. "He was born and raised there. However like Ron DeSantis, Doug Burgum will waste millions of dollars only to lose to President Donald Trump in Iowa."
Although Burgum has said he doesn't plan to go negative on his rivals, he offers plenty of contrasts — some subtle, others not. In his announcement speech Wednesday, Burgum noted his re-election in 2020 by 40 points. DeSantis often brags about his 19-point re-election victory last year in Florida, a state that's far more competitive than reliably Republican North Dakota.
In a statement Wednesday, Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison linked Burgum to Trump's brand, noting that the governor had campaigned for him in 2020.
"With Doug Burgum’s announcement today, the race for the MAGA base gained yet another candidate who has cozied up to Donald Trump for years and implemented his MAGA agenda," Harrison said. "This field might be getting more crowded, but every single contender is peddling the same brand of extremism that the American people have rejected again and again."
Debate participants also will be required to pledge support to the GOP's eventual nominee. Trump has not committed to doing so. And some of his opponents have said they do not plan to back the former president if he's nominated for a third straight time.
Burgum told NBC News last month that he would support Trump or any Republican in a race against President Joe Biden.
"We will unlock the best of America in all of us," Burgum said Wednesday as he concluded his launch speech. "Please join us on this mission. With your support we will improve every American life."
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com