FARGO, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a former software entrepreneur who enacted a slate of laws this year advancing conservative policies on culture war issues, highlighted his small-town roots and business experience as he announced his candidacy for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination on Wednesday.
Burgum, 66, joins a long list of contenders hoping to dent former President Donald Trump's early lead in the race. The governor of the nation's fourth-least populous state kicked off his campaign in Fargo, near the tiny farm town of Arthur where he grew up.
"Small-town values have guided me my entire life," Burgum told the crowd. "And frankly, big cities could use more ideas and more values from small towns right now."
Burgum spoke under a sign declaring him "A new leader for a changing economy," echoing a slogan from his successful 2016 gubernatorial campaign. Reelected in 2020, he's eligible to run for a third time in 2024.
In 1983, he founded Great Plains Software, which was acquired by Microsoft in 2001. Burgum stayed on as a Microsoft vice president until 2007.
Many prominent North Dakota Republicans attended the event, held at a former church in downtown Fargo, including two former governors and several state lawmakers.
Burgum said he and the Legislature turned a budget deficit into a surplus, cut taxes and red tape, bolstered cybersecurity, and revitalized North Dakota's main streets. He also said they increased spending on education, strengthened tribal relations and boosted energy production. He said his state is one of the very few that's growing and getting younger, with some of the lowest unemployment in the country.
"We know we could do the same for America," he said. "Right now, the world, our economy, are both changing rapidly. And how we respond will define our future."
North Dakota is one of the country's top oil-producing states. Burgum alluded to that when he said energy policy can't be separated from economic or national security policy. He called on America to produce more energy to sell to its friends.
"(Russian President Vladimir) Putin only dared to invade Ukraine because our allies in Western Europe are all dependent on Russian energy," he said.
Known to few outside North Dakota, Burgum faces an immense challenge in a field dominated by Trump and the better-known governor in the race, Ron DeSantis of Florida. Trump's super PAC dismissed Burgum's entry, predicting in a statement that Burgum will "waste millions of dollars only to lose."
As evidence of Burgum's long odds, he wasn't even the most notable candidate to announce a presidential campaign on Wednesday. Four hundred miles to the south, former Vice President Mike Pence launched his White House bid in Iowa.
Burgum will campaign Thursday and Friday in Iowa, home of the first-in-the-nation Republican caucuses, and Saturday and Sunday in New Hampshire, which hosts the first GOP primary.
Burgum's predecessor, former Gov. Jack Dalrymple, acknowledged Burgum faces "a tremendous challenge," but said he has taken on big challenges throughout his life and surprised everyone with his success.
"I think people will see that this is an exceptional person. He does not have any of the crazy baggage that comes with a Donald Trump or even with a Ron DeSantis, and people will soon realize that that's what we need," Dalrymple said in an interview.
Laws that Burgum signed this year include banning abortion with few exceptions up to six weeks' gestation and several restricting trans rights.
LGBTQ advocates demonstrated outside the hall. Cody Schuler, advocacy manager for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota, pointed to Burgum's past reluctance to wade into culture war and gender expression issues.
He feels the governor "sold out the queer community because he wanted to run for president, and did not stick what he has said for years for political reasons."
In addition to Trump, DeSantis and Pence, Burgum will be facing off against former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, anti-woke activist Vivek Ramaswamy, conservative talk radio host Larry Elder and businessman Perry Johnson.
The GOP nominee is expected to face Democratic President Joe Biden in 2024.
Bradley Salberg, a 16-year-old Grand Forks high school student who waited in line for photos with the governor, said Burgum would do "much better than Biden ever will." He said the small-town message resonated with him most.
"I think he's going to be a lot better with small towns in the U.S. and getting more of the vote from the rural areas of the country" compared with Trump and DeSantis, he said.
Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa. AP writer Steve Karnowski reported from Minneapolis.