Billionaire Tom Steyer defends place in Iowa Democratic debate

Tom Steyer, the billionaire hedge funder, has claimed picking a nominee to face Donald Trump in November is “more about judgment than experience”.

Related: Impeachment: Trump fumes as Pelosi prepares to send articles to the Senate

Steyer this week became the sixth qualifier for the seventh Democratic presidential debate, in Des Moines on Tuesday, after he met polling and donor-based marks set by the Democratic National Committee.

He is way down the field in Iowa, the first state to vote, but polls in South Carolina and Nevada, where he has spent heavily on ads that depict him as an “outsider” ready to take on Trump, put him over the top.

Steyer will line up against former senator and vice-president Joe Biden; senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar; and Pete Buttigieg, formerly mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

None of the other candidates, among them New Jersey senator Cory Booker, tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang and another billionaire, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, will be present.

Steyer’s success has prompted pointed remarks from analysts and other candidates. Warren said recently she did not “believe that elections ought to be for sale”. Others have pointed to an all-white debate lineup in the absence of Booker, the only African American left in the race, and what that says for a party committed to recognising diversity.

Asked what qualified him to seek the White House, Steyer told CNN’s State of the Union: “I did business for over 30 years working and traveling around the world, meeting with governments, talking to the heads of huge corporations, and understanding actually what drives America’s business around the world and our relationships with other countries, and what makes that trade and relationship succeed.”

He also said the person who “did the best job in figuring out American foreign policy and military policy” over the last two decades was “a state senator from Illinois with absolutely no military or international experience named Barack Obama, who said, against the advice of everybody who was an insider in Washington DC, that the Iraq war was a mistake”.

Amid fierce controversy over Trump’s aggression towards Iran, Steyer added: “When you tell me that what we really need is more conventional DC thinking about our international policy, our foreign policy, and our military policy, I would actually suggest to you that maybe this is more about judgment than experience.”

Steyer has a financial advantage over most other candidates. Many have criticised him, and Bloomberg, for seeking to “buy” the nomination, in order to face another billionaire at the polls.

Stayer made his fortune running Farallon Capital, out of San Francisco, but has spent the last 10 years or so giving money philanthropically and pursuing policy priorities including accessible banking and climate activism.

“I think that the thing that has put me on this stage,” he told CNN, “is message. I have a very simple message, which is, the government is broken. It’s been bought by corporations. I spent 10 years as an outsider putting together coalitions of American citizens to fight and beat those corporations.

“I’m the only person in this race who will say that his or her No 1 priority is climate. And I will attack it from the … very first day from the standpoint of environmental justice, and I can take on Mr Trump on the economy in a way that nobody else can, because I built a business from scratch, and I understand job creation and prosperity and growth, as well as economic justice.”

Related: Joe Biden is overwhelming favourite among black voters, poll finds

The Nevada caucuses are on 22 February and South Carolina holds its primary seven days later. Steyer’s concentration on the two states has had national benefits: on Saturday a Washington Poll post poll showed him second, if distantly, to Biden among black voters, a key bloc in South Carolina.

Other candidates, with less to spend, have been busy in Iowa and New Hampshire, which vote on 3 and 11 February respectively. Challenged over figures that show 91% of political advertising so far in South Carolina and 97% in Nevada has been from his campaign, Steyer insisted he had “82 organisers on the ground in South Carolina” and was “actually a grassroots person”.

“I have been there,” he said. “There’s someone who didn’t endorse me who’s a politician in South Carolina who said, ‘Steyer came down here. He rolled up his sleeves. He went out. He listened to people. He sat across the table. He worked.’

“I have been a grassroots organiser, as you know, for 10 years. And that’s exactly what I’m doing in these early primary states. I’m going. I’m listening to people. I spend all my time in the kinds of meetings that I love, which is taking questions and asking questions and listening and learning.”

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