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EL PASO, Texas ― Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke formally launched his campaign Saturday, fielding crowds of thousands at every event in a three-city swing across Texas aimed at capitalizing on the support he built over the last two years during his unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid.
O’Rourke’s romp across the length of a state nearly twice the size of Germany drove home the themes that have animated his run to challenge Donald Trump for the presidency: praising the virtues of a border vilified by Trump, contesting conservative control of the country’s largest red state and campaigning at a breakneck pace that other candidates, most of whom have full-time jobs, haven’t attempted to match.
By early morning, a crowd of cheering supporters had gathered at a downtown intersection in El Paso to hear O’Rourke, who was representing the city as a congressman when he challenged Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.
O’Rourke sounded off on many of the themes that he has long pressed, starting with immigration ― an issue that took on increased urgency for his hometown this week. Customs and Border Protection has been housing recently apprehended families, mostly from Central America, under the international bridge joining the city to Mexico, contending that the high numbers have strained capacity. On Friday, President Donald Trump threatened to shut down the legal crossings between the two countries over the issue.
“They are our fellow human beings and deserve to be treated like our fellow human beings,” O’Rourke said.
In a speech laden with aspirational goals but often vague on specific policies, O’Rourke praised El Paso’s role in welcoming immigrants and asylum-seekers, fulminated against the ability of PACs and special interests to buy legislative outcomes, called for “universal, high quality” health care and gave repeated shoutouts to veterans.
If elected president, O’Rourke said, he vowed to sign legislation guaranteeing paid family and sick leave, as well as a new Voting Rights Act that would ban gerrymandering and make voting registration automatic and obligatory. “We run the risk of becoming a democracy in name only,” O’Rourke said.
In a familiar refrain, the candidate urged the crowd to shed divisive labels and political differences and instead think of themselves as “Americans first.” He rarely mentioned Trump’s name, except to say he should be defeated in 2020.
“For too long in this country, the powerful in this country have maintained their power at the expense of the powerless,” O’Rourke said. “They have used fear and division in the same way that our president uses fear and division. … To make us angry and to make us afraid of ourselves and of one another.”
Young, wealthy and unemployed, O’Rourke has been free to exploit his main strength as a candidate: an eagerness to show up. After the rally at El Paso, O’Rourke continued on to Houston, the state’s largest city, where he fielded a crowd of 10,500 at Texas Southern University, campaign staffers said, citing local police. O’Rourke held a final event Saturday night directly in front of the Republican-controlled state Legislature in Austin. About 1,000 volunteers signed up to host watch parties, according to the campaign.
Next week he’s headed back to the early caucus state of Iowa, where he’ll host two dozen events over four days.
“It’s a microcosm of what he is,” said Steve Ortega, who had served with O’Rourke on El Paso’s City Council. “He’s not going to do a launch in El Paso and call it a day.”
Saturday’s events amount to a launch in name only. O’Rourke joined the race for the Democratic presidential nomination on March 14, then took off on a cross-country tour, pounding all four of the first primary voting states, along with stops in the Upper Midwest and Pennsylvania.
Picking up where his campaign against Cruz left off, O’Rourke paraded across the country in a rented minivan, often hitting multiple cities in a single day to rattle off speeches, chat with potential voters and field questions from reporters.
The approach plays to the strengths of a candidate who shines on the trail but at times struggled under attack from Cruz on the debate stage. After two years of crisscrossing Texas, O’Rourke has honed a stump style marked by largely improvised speeches, odes to bipartisanship and unrelenting positivity. He often insists he’s not running against anyone and urges conservatives and independents to join him.
For Lupe Hernández, a native El Pasoan who attended Saturday’s speech with her daughter Kat, O’Rourke’s demeanor represents the polar opposite of Trump’s.
“We love Beto,” Hernández said. “He’s very down-to-earth. He feels like someone you can relate to ― like family.”
Another local, Adam Alhakeem, attended the speech to get a better sense of O’Rourke before deciding whom to support. He backed O’Rourke wholeheartedly for Senate, but wonders if he’s too green compared to political titans like U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who are also competing for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“Whoever’s the best to dethrone Trump, that’s the best candidate for me,” Alhakeem said. “[O’Rourke] could be. We’ll start to see that when he gets into the debates.”
O’Rourke’s hyperactive style and willingness to subject himself daily ― sometimes hourly ― to media scrutiny has opened him up to recurrent criticism. He waves his arms too much. He’s changed positions on controversial issues, like his vote for the Thin Blue Line Act, mandating the death penalty for those who target police officers. He’s a white man of means, with all the privilege that entails, who stands on tables and can make insensitive jokes (swiftly recanted) about his absence as a father during his Senate race.
But his campaign’s logic is clear: Politics is a popularity contest. And O’Rourke aims to win by getting his face in front of every voter possible.
“I follow the schedules and I think it sounds awful,” University of Texas at El Paso professor Richard Pineda told HuffPost. “But if you’ve got nothing else to do and nothing to lose, why not do it?”
The (re)launch also highlights the degree to which Democrats in general, and O’Rourke in particular, hope to open up Texas as a new political battleground.
With a statewide office losing streak that stretches back to the 1990s, Democrats have less influence over Texas politics than in any state of the South. In a state where edible marijuana remains a felony and a debate over restricting transgender bathroom rights forced a special legislative session in 2017, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates have become accustomed to using Texas to fundraise for more competitive races in far-flung purple states.
But O’Rourke played a key role in changing that, largely by adopting the aggressive campaign strategy that characterizes his bid for the Democratic nomination. He lost the Senate race by just 2.7 percentage points, narrowing the Republican margin of victory from the more usual double digits.
“This state and its 38 electoral votes count like they’ve never counted before,” O’Rourke said in El Paso.
Other Democratic presidential hopefuls are also getting into the action.
Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro joined the race for the nomination in January. And U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) pitched her plan to make a historic federal investment in closing the teacher pay gap during a visit to Texas last week ― speaking at Texas Southern University, the same venue where O’Rourke will speak in Houston on Saturday.
Long ignored by national political figures, the Texas Democratic Party is reveling in the attention. When the primaries are over, party leaders view the red state and its 38 Electoral College votes as eminently flippable ― not just because of O’Rourke’s unexpectedly strong performance in the midterm, but because both the party and nonpartisan groups have ramped up investment in turnout and the majority-minority state’s demographics are trending in the Democrats’ favor.
More Latinos are turning 18. Traditionally conservative rural Texas is shedding population. The cities, by contrast, are swelling with transplants from both coasts. And gentrification is pushing left-leaning voters into the suburbs, shifting the electoral map.
“Texas for a long time was the national ATM and the butt of a joke,” Manny Garcia, the communications director for the Texas Democratic Party, told HuffPost. “Now it’s the largest battleground state in the country, and it’s incredibly exciting.”
This story has been updated with remarks from O’Rourke and attendees, as well as details about his rally in Houston.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.