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Beto O’Rourke says, ‘I’m running,’ heads to Iowa | TribLIVE.com
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Beto O’Rourke says, ‘I’m running,’ heads to Iowa

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In this Feb. 5, 2019, photo, former Democratic Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke laughs as he is interviewed by Oprah Winfrey in New York. O’Rourke told a Texas TV station Wednesday that he’s running for president in 2020.

Beto O’Rourke starts a three-day trip to Iowa on Thursday, taking a first — and very high profile ◊ step into the crowded Democratic field for president, four months after narrowly losing a Texas Senate race that propelled him to national stardom.

By Saturday night, the three-term congressman from El Paso is expected to visit a dozen of Iowa’s 99 counties. Although he still hadn’t formally announced a campaign by Wednesday afternoon, the trip ends months of suspense over whether he would try to harness the buzz he generated during the near-miss against Sen. Ted Cruz.

Signs pointed to an announcement on Thursday morning, a day after O’Rourke supporters in Texas received emails asking for help spreading an impending message then. On Wednesday evening, KTSM-TV in El Paso reported that O’Rourke confirmed by text that he will seek the Democratic nomination: “I’m running.”

For his first stop of the 2020 campaign, O’Rourke is heading to a coffee shop in Burlington, a small town in the southeast corner of Iowa, and then a union hall, according to local Democratic officials. These are far more intimate settings than huge crowds he attracted in the Senate race, or the 10,000-strong counter-rally he led last month when President Trump came to his hometown to pitch the merits of a border wall.

But diners and back roads also are a comfort zone for O’Rourke, 46, an engaging and tireless campaigner who positioned himself in Texas as a post-partisan consensus builder, in contrast to the fiercely combative Cruz.

“I can’t wait to meet him,” said Thomas Courtney, chairman of the Des Moines County Democrats in Burlington, who lost his state Senate seat in the 2016 Trump wave. He learned only on Tuesday that a presidential candidate would be in town two days later, and had to do some sleuthing to find out which one.

“O’Rourke people kept this real quiet,” he said.

Starting in a fairly remote town along the Mississippi gives O’Rourke a chance to dip his toe into Iowa while limiting the fanfare and scrutiny at the outset. It’s a Democratic stronghold where losses of blue collar jobs created fertile ground for Trump.

O’Rourke raised $80 million in the Senate bid, nearly all of it from small-dollar donors — a record for any Senate candidate in any state, ever. He’ll need as many as possible to stick by him now that he’s competing with the likes of Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.

He continued to expand his list in recent days through email blasts and a barrage of Facebook ads, his first paid advertising since the Texas campaign, alluding to an impending announcement.

“People in communities across the country have been reaching out and asking me if I’m planning on running in 2020,” the ad reads. “Amy and I have made a decision on that. Sign up today to be first to know what’s next. I’d like for you to be a part of it.”

He collected more votes than any Democrat in Texas history, coming closer than any to winning since 1994, the last time Texas Republicans lost even one statewide contest.

O’Rourke’s ability to stir excitement, command national attention and attract mounds of cash shouldn’t be underestimated as he turns his sights on the White House. But that was against Cruz, a polarizing tea party conservative reviled by Democrats nationwide.

In a Democratic scramble for the White House nomination, he’ll face a fresh set of questions from Democrats eager to topple Trump and to advance an agenda on which he’s been vague or, in some cases, more centrist than many would like.

“It definitely will not be sufficient to just have an inspiring aura. Democratic voters want to know what worldview a candidate has,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

The million-member group backed O’Rourke for Senate and has endorsed Warren for the 2020 nomination.

Against Cruz, his support for free trade and the energy industry and even gun rights came with enough provisos to open him to attack from the right. In a Democratic field, his centrism may hinder him. He hasn’t signed onto the Green New Deal, and hasn’t championed Medicare for all, which have become litmus tests in the primary.

“In the Texas Senate race, when someone as inspiring as Beto had a plausible chance to defeat Ted Cruz, it was a no brainer to support him, and there weren’t many questions asked about his specific positions on a lot of issues,” Green said. “In a presidential primary with many good options, including Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, a lot of progressive voters will obviously apply more scrutiny.”

In the 2020 scramble, O’Rourke wouldn’t be starting from scratch. “Beto-mania” was in full swing in the weeks after Election Day and even three months ago, when the field was much smaller, he was in much better shape.

A Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom poll released on March 9 showed him at 5 percent among Iowa Democrats, a sharp drop from the 11 percent he hit in December, when he was in the top three with former Vice President Joe Biden and Sanders.

The Republican National Committee is ready to welcome O’Rourke to the race as “No Borders Beto,” focusing on his call to tear down existing border barriers and to “decriminalize illegal border crossings.”

That’s just one of the half-dozen lines of attack the RNC has prepared. Others:

• Support for government-run health care and the socialist, $93 trillion “Green New Deal.”

• Tried to flee the scene of his DUI — and lies about it.

• Called America’s law enforcement “the new Jim-Crow.”

• Passed only one bill in Congress: naming a courthouse.

• Best known for losing an election, after which he spent months on widely-mocked road trip to find himself.

O’Rourke has been quietly rounding up talent.

In Iowa, for instance, the Texan’s team has landed one of the top handful of experts on the caucuses, Norm Sterzenbach, a former executive director of the state Democratic Party. “Few others in the state know the caucus process, rules, and strategies better than him,” according to Iowa Starting Line, a politics newsletter.

He’d kept up the public tease for weeks, dropping hints to Oprah Winfrey last month and drawing a crowd in Austin last weekend at the South by Southwest premier of a documentary about his campaign.

O’Rourke drew derision for live-streaming a dental visit in early January —the aim was to air a chat with his hygienist about life along the border — and for a solo road trip on which he conceded that he’d been in a “funk” since losing the Senate race.

O’Rourke lives-streamed his campaign events in Texas and used Facebook Live to give supporters endless hours of access to him as he drove around the state. Such events attracted tens of thousands of viewers even in the past few months and even without advance notice, as he brought viewers into Mexico to visit with migrants, for instance.

Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines whose books include “The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: the Making of a Media Event,” wondered recently if O’Rourke’s wavering about a 2020 run had turned him into a “Hamlet candidate” unable to make up his mind and lacking the fire needed to survive a presidential race.

Chris LeHane, a veteran Democratic strategist who served as a top aide on Al Gore’s 2000 campaign, argued that for a candidate as talented as O’Rourke, it’s nowhere near too late.

“A lot remains to be seen but look at the skill set,” LeHane said. “He’s the best natural athlete in the field right now. He’s authentic. He knows how to communicate. He obviously has the ability to connect with a wide range of folks, in particular millennials, which is a critical asset in this particular race.”

“There’s a big transition when you go up and start seeing major league pitching and major league curve balls … but he has enormous potential,” LeHane said.

He pointed to O’Rourke’s cross-country road trip with Rep. Will Hurd, a San Antonio Republican, when their flights to Washington were canceled. The day-long buddy trip, broadcast on Facebook for all to see, served as an antidote to the toxicity in the capital and brought accolades to both. During the Senate campaign, O’Rourke refused to endorse Hurd’s opponent; that cost him some Democratic votes.

To LeHane, it was showed character of the sort that many voters crave.

“That was just a natural moment in a time when people are desperate for that,” he said.

He pointed, too, to breakthrough moments in the Senate race such as O’Rourke’s lengthy defense of NFL football players who kneel during the National Anthem to draw attention to police-on-citizen violence. Cruz used that against him, accusing him of disrespect for the anthem and the American flag. But it endeared him to liberals and earned him an invitation onto the Ellen DeGeneres Show. Grass-roots donors showered him with cash.

“Are you in the social democrat lane? Are you in the moderate lane? That’s often how these races play out,” LeHane said, “but if you’re a candidate who can transcend a bunch of those lanes, those questions get mooted. … It could play out very conventionally, but he has the potential to be the disruptive candidate in the field.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is the most prominent Democrat to question whether O’Rourke, having lost his only statewide race, is a plausible contender for president. But O’Rourke’s staying power in the polls suggests that many voters don’t see that as a problem.

“One question for primary voters is whether it’s more important to have impressively run in a Trump state, but lost, or been elected statewide in an overwhelmingly Democratic state. Both are valuable experiences,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who worked on the 2016 Clinton campaign and isn’t affiliated with anyone in this year’s field.

He noted that while the “pre-primary and silent primary” are well underway as candidates line up donors and staff, most voters haven’t yet started to make choices. So the window is still open.

“He would enter the race with more name recognition than many others, although not everyone, and with a larger social media following than many others,” Ferguson said, adding that voters recognize hesitation as thoughtfulness and preparation. “This is the presidency.”

One of the knocks on O’Rourke is that his public service is limited to a stint on the El Paso City Council and three terms in the U.S. House — not the usual resume of a future president.

Abraham Lincoln served in the U.S. House and lost two Senate races before winning the presidency. No one since then has made that leap. James Garfield, in 1880, was the last sitting member of the U.S. House to win the presidency.

“Presidential campaigns are about the total picture of the person and who they are, not how they position themselves and micro target their agenda,” Ferguson said. Besides, he said, experience may not be the top requisite to challenge Trump.

“If he runs it will be a test of whether you can compete with Trump by indicting Trump’s values and his vision for the country rather than trying to beat him in a day to day slap fight,” Ferguson said.

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