Before Beto O’Rourke arrived at Pour Coffeehouse in Las Vegas, the crowd, which stretched from the back of the cafe, through its front doors and deep into the plaza’s parking lot, had grown restless. Inside, a man offered $100 to blast the air conditioner. Outside, supporters raised signs high to shield a group of hecklers carrying a Trump 2020 banner and shouting an ethnic slur into a bullhorn.
This was not the aspirational vision of America that the presidential hopeful had described in soaring rhetoric to rapt audiences on his 10-day, eight-state journey across the country. But it was a consequence, he said, of Trump’s America.
O’Rourke parked his rented Dodge minivan, lifted himself on to the hood and then climbed on to the roof. All around him, cellphones angled toward the sky to capture his lanky frame towering above.
“There is an intolerance and a racism and a lack of civility that has been unleashed on this country by one of the most racist, uncivil presidents we have had,” O’Rourke said, punching the air with his arms for emphasis. By then his voice was hoarse but his delivery was no less urgent.
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“The way to meet that challenge,” he continued, “is not to succumb to the pettiness, to the smallness, to the intolerance. The way to meet that is to ensure we elevate every single American regardless of whether you are Republican or Democrat. No me importa to whom you pray, where you are from or who you love.”
When O’Rourke finished, he slid down the windshield and waded into an adoring crowd.
After a star-making but ultimately unsuccessful run for Senate in Texas last year, a brooding American road trip and a nudge from Oprah, the former three-term congressman from El Paso, Texas, jumped into the unsettled contest to challenge Donald Trump for the presidency.
O’Rourke was met by large, enthusiastic crowds as he blazed a frenetic trail through the early-voting states on his first visit as a presidential candidate, as polls placed him in the top tier of the party’s 2020 contenders. With many months of campaigning ahead, his candidacy is a wild card in a wide field of Democrats with longer résumés, more significant policy accomplishments, and history-setting biographies. But supporters say his boundless optimism is the antidote to Trump’s divisiveness.
“His message is exactly what this country needs right now,” said congresswoman Kathleen Rice, a New York Democrat and one of the first members of Congress to endorse O’Rourke for president. “He is a substantive guy – but the thing that sets him apart is that he listens to people.”
‘Show up everywhere’
In keeping with the “show up everywhere” ethos of his 2018 run, O’Rourke barnstormed the early states with a skeletal staff, live-streaming the hours-long drive between hastily organized stops. Standing on chairs, countertops and, by the end, cars, O’Rourke delivered a relentlessly positive message that, for many, recalled the hope-and-change idealism of Barack Obama. .
“You made me cry,” a woman told him during one of his lasts stop of the tour at a home in Las Vegas. “You have touched my heart.” She brushed a tear away with her long, manicured nails and in a mix of English and Spanish, pledged to help him win the nomination.
In his first 24 hours as a candidate, O’Rourke raised a stunning $6.1m, a record-setting sum that narrowly surpassed Bernie Sanders’ first-day total and dwarfed everyone else in the race. And this week he announced this week that Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, a former top aide to Barack Obama, would be his campaign manager.
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, said O’Rourke has the potential to be the Democratic “surprise factor” this cycle – the candidate who millennials could carry to the front of the pack. But his challenge, she said, will be to “translate that momentum and that energy into votes and delegates, especially in older primary electorates like Iowa and South Carolina”.
His candidacy has been met with some skepticism, especially from Democrats on the left who want to see a fierce contest of ideas and believe O’Rourke lacks substance and policy expertise. .
Photograph: Ethan Miller/Getty Images
“He’s using the revolutionary style of a movement-based campaign but he’s missing the parts that make it truly revolutionary – the big, substantive policy ideas,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for Justice Democrats, which helps elect progressive Democrats.
The Texan is hard to place ideologically. He campaigned for Senate as an unabashed liberal but his moderate voting record in Congress and his shifting support for Medicare for All “sow doubts” about the strength of his convictions to progressive priorities, Shahid said.
O’Rourke readily admits that his candidacy is a work in progress.
“I have a ton to learn,” he told reporters in Las Vegas. “I also want to be real clear when I’ve made a mistake or when I could do something better. I think that’s the only way to improve.”
Amid criticism about the double standard he enjoyed, O’Rourke acknowledged, repeatedly, that he has led a privileged life as a white man from a wealthy family and said he understood why some Democrats wonder if a “white man” is the best fit for the moment.
He also declined to say anything negative about his Democratic challengers, and, when asked, said the country “owes so much” to Sanders for pushing the country forward on healthcare. He said he couldn’t imagine not choosing a female running mate if he wins, and pledged to do everything he could to elect the Democratic nominee if he loses.
In his exchanges with voters about healthcare, immigration, climate change, marijuana legalization and a range of other topics, O’Rourke leads with the principles he would bring to the policy fight. He wraps his support for specific solutions into broader ideals that he said explain how he might confront the issue as president.
O’Rourke spent the first days of his campaign on a road trip from Iowa to New Hampshire, that included stops in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, before finishing in South Carolina and Nevada. At dozens of town-hall style events along the way, he asked voters for help shaping his policy agenda.
“Please,” he implored the crowd, speaking from atop a chair at Taqueria Arandas, a small, brightly-colored restaurant in Las Vegas, “ask a question, make a comment, offer me some guidance or an idea. I am all ears.”
Photograph: John Locher/AP
Despite the hesitation of some party activists, the listen-and-learn approach has endeared him to voters on the campaign trail.
Ed Cantillo, a lifelong Democrat, said he knew little about the candidate before arriving at a meet-and-greet hosted by his neighbor, Artie Blanco, a Democratic operative in the state.
“Wow!” Cantillo marveled afterward. “He has something really special. That is a gift.”
Cantillo wasn’t ready to throw his support behind O’Rourke just yet, but he said was “right up there” at the top of his list.
Blanco, a fellow Texas native, also hasn’t made up her mind yet. But she, too, said O’Rourke made a good first impression.
“I actually like that he’s willing to listen and learn,” she said. “But, of course, at some point, I would definitely want to know what decision he would make.”
That evening, O’Rourke said he appreciated a phrase that he heard Blanco and other labor activists in the state use: “One job should be enough.” At every event after that, O’Rourke repeated the line as part of his call for raising the minimum wage, crediting the people of Las Vegas for sharing it to him.
‘I come from a community of immigrants’
Arriving in Las Vegas at the end of his first road trip as a presidential candidate, O’Rourke said he felt “at home”. Here in desert, where voters slipped easily between Spanish, English and a hybrid Spanglish, few struggled to pronounce “Beto”, a diminutive of the name Roberto, or Robert. He in turn was complimented for taking questions in Spanish – and correctly pronouncing the state, Nevada.
“Me encanta,” he said wistfully – “I love it” – as he spoke of the parallels with El Paso, a border town that forms a binational metropolis with Ciudad Juárez in Mexico.
El Paso is not only a point of pride for the Democrat – but a place he holds up as an antidote to Trump’s immigration policy of family separations and his dark vision of a south-west border “under siege”.
“There are three million of us from two countries speaking two languages, joined – not separated – by the Rio Grande river that together form something far greater, far more powerful, far more magical than the sum of our parts,” he said at the taco shop.
When asked why he thought he could achieve comprehensive immigration reform after decades of failed attempts, O’Rourke replied: “You asked what makes me different. I come from a community of immigrants.”
O’Rourke will formally launch his campaign on Saturday with a rally in El Paso. There he will have an opportunity to make the case that he is not only prepared to listen and learn – but that he is ready to lead. Then he will hop in his car and drive to Houston and Austin, where he’ll do it all over again.