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Beto O'Rourke

Entering Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state, far later than most of his competitors, Beto O’Rourke is attempting to position himself as a unifying figure in the Democratic primary | Raul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

2020 elections

The Texas Democrat’s first day as a 2020 candidate delivered a sense of his potential, but also signaled the dangers ahead for his campaign.

BURLINGTON, Iowa — Beto O’Rourke muscled into Iowa on Thursday, climbed onto a café counter amid a crush of supporters and declared that in the teeming crowd, “I see the future of America, right now, right here.”

In the first and earliest test of the Texas Democrat’s appeal outside his home state, O’Rourke chewed through the news cycle, attracting crowds and a deluge of media attention that followed him from coffee shops to town halls to sidewalks in southeastern Iowa.

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The scene delivered a sense of his potential, but also signaled the dangers ahead for his campaign. The celebrity splash that marked his first day as a presidential candidate — his visit was preceded the evening before by a Vanity Fair cover story — generated a backlash among some Democrats frustrated by the fanfare surrounding his launch, and by what they viewed as a double standard applied to O’Rourke in a field flush with women and candidates of color.

The prominent conservative group Club for Growth sought to fan those flames by cutting an advertisement depicting O’Rourke as a candidate buttressed by “white male privilege.”

Inside the Beancounter Coffeehouse & Drinkery in Burlington, supporters of the former congressman posed for selfies and solicited autographs from O’Rourke. And like a jack-in-the-box — his long arms and elastic legs perpetually in motion — the former congressman labored to pry open a place for himself in the crowded Democratic primary field. The crowd grew to more than 120 people, and when Fox News set up a live shot during O’Rourke’s speech, attendees shushed the reporter from a stairway.

Yet many Democrats now crowded around O’Rourke in Iowa know him solely from his Texas Senate race last year. And while O’Rourke cultivated a national following during his closer-than-expected run against incumbent Ted Cruz, he was competing against a Republican universally loathed by Democrats, not the catalogue of top-tier progressives awaiting him in the presidential primary.

In Iowa, O’Rourke was met by receptive crowds Thursday. But he was also confronted quickly by the difficulty he will have distinguishing himself in the campaign. Julián Castro, O’Rourke’s fellow Texan and the former mayor of San Antonio, chose O’Rourke’s announcement day to announce endorsements from 30 elected and appointed Democrats in Texas. And Sen. Kamala Harris of California sent an email raising money off O’Rourke’s entrance into the race, impressing on her supporters the need to compete in an expanding field.

Entering Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state, far later than most of his competitors, O’Rourke is attempting to position himself as a unifying figure in the Democratic primary, establishing himself as a politician who could appeal to less ideologically minded voters.

First in Keokuk, then Burlington, a manufacturing center, the 46-year-old O’Rourke pinned his campaign not to policy, but to a commitment to voters that he will engage with them regardless of party affiliation. O’Rourke spoke broadly about health care, wages, tax reform and education, often entertaining proposals but rarely embracing or rejecting them in any detail.

Asked about a proposal to expand the number of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, O’Rourke said, “Given the fact that we are at one of the most dysfunctional points in U.S. governmental history, I think it calls upon us to be creative about what some of the solutions are.”

O’Rourke was noncommittal about his campaign operation and fundraising, too. By early afternoon, he said he did not know how well his initial fundraising was going, and when asked by POLITICO if he would disclose his 24-hour fundraising figures on Friday, he demurred.

“I don’t know,” he said.

O’Rourke told the El Paso Times that he will headquarter his campaign in El Paso and require staffers to move to the West Texas city, despite concerns from some Democratic operatives about its distance from political and media centers in the East Coast. O’Rourke said Becky Bond, a senior adviser to Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign and an adviser to O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate run, is not managing his campaign, though he did not answer a question about who is.

“Regardless of what it is,” O’Rourke said of the myriad issues raised at a campaign stop in Burlington, “we’ve got to make sure that this very divided, highly polarized country is able to come together, that we find enough common ground to pursue the common good, that we all have a common conception of who we are as Americans before we’re Republicans and Democrats.”

O’Rourke vowed in his campaign announcement Thursday to run a “positive campaign.” And at least in its opening hours, he adhered religiously to the script. Asked what sets him apart from his competitors while walking down a sidewalk in Burlington, he told reporters, “I’m going to allow people to determine what sets us apart from one another.”

“All I can tell you is I want to be able to bring people together,” he said. “We have a history of being able to do that in El Paso and in Texas, ensuring party affiliation or geography or race doesn’t separate us.”

Earlier, O’Rourke praised “so many amazing candidates running for president right now,” and he said “it’s a great sign that in some important ways, this democracy still works.”

He added, “Any single Democrat running today … would be far better than the current occupant of the White House.”

O’Rourke’s advisers said the three-day trip would take O’Rourke through more than a dozen counties, including several that went for President Barack Obama in 2012 before flipping to Donald Trump in 2016.

Meanwhile, O’Rourke began furious efforts to raise money online, encouraging top donors and lower-profile supporters alike to solicit help from their networks emailing his own fundraising appeals. While the initial, 24-hour fundraising period is significant to every presidential candidate, it looms especially large for O’Rourke, who was viewed by many Democrats as a credible candidate only after he raised more than $80 million in the 2018 Senate race, a staggering sum.

O’Rourke, like many Democrats, has sworn of super PAC funding, a pledge he glanced at — and re-upped — in a fundraising request coinciding with his announcement. By late morning Wednesday, he said on Twitter that people from every U.S. state and territory had made donations to his campaign.

“All people, no PACs,” he said on Twitter. “Let’s keep up the momentum.”

O’Rourke is starting far behind other Democrats in the state, many of whom have not only been campaigning for themselves here this year, but also traveled extensively throughout Iowa during last year’s midterm elections.

In a telephone call with one Democrat in the state, a source familiar with the conversation told POLITICO, O’Rourke personally apologized this week for his campaign’s lack of organization, with his spartan staff attempting to quickly develop an operation in Iowa after O’Rourke spent months weighing a run.

The formation of a campaign — and his arrival in Iowa — met with relief from supporters, who had been encouraging O’Rourke to run for months. Michael Soneff, a political strategist who was working with a “Draft Beto” effort, flew east from California late Wednesday, with O’Rourke’s announcement appearing imminent.

“I want to be there to see history being made,” he said.

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