MIAMI — Julián Castro has spent months in the shadow of fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke.
But in the span of less than three minutes Wednesday, Castro seized on the inhumane treatment of migrants at detention centers to summon his party’s spiraling outrage over immigration, generating an elusive breakout moment at the expense of the once-high-flying O’Rourke.
In narrow political terms, Castro broke through punching up at a better-known rival, aggressively backing O’Rourke so far into a corner on his signature issue that he struggled in real-time to explain his position. But Castro’s righteous lashing also defined the tone of the first presidential debate of the 2020 contest, in which he and other low-polling men in need of momentum aimed their frustrations at O’Rourke, rather than the highest-polling candidate on stage, Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
While Sens. Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar passed on early pleas from the debate moderators to contrast themselves directly with Warren, O’Rourke soon found himself attacked from both the left and right on health care, by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and ex-Rep. John Delaney, respectively.
Then, Castro leapt at O’Rourke after the former El Paso congressman explained that his administration would “spare no expense” to reunite families separated at the U.S. border and would not criminally prosecute any family.
Castro — whose backers have grumbled that his signature immigration plan has not gotten the same attention accorded to rivals’ policy proposals — castigated O’Rourke for refusing to come out against Section 1325 of federal immigration law, which makes “illegal entry” into the United States a misdemeanor.
“Let's be very clear,” said Castro, the former Cabinet secretary and San Antonio mayor. “The reason that they are separating these little children from their families is that they are using Section 1325 of that act, which criminalizes coming across the border, to incarcerate the parents and separate them.
Then, he turned to O’Rourke, who mixed Spanish into his answers throughout the debate but never met Castro’s charges with anything close to approximating equal force. When a debate moderator, Jose Diaz Balart, urged Castro to allow O’Rourke to finish his answer, Castro glanced across the stage at the candidate and shook his head in disbelief.
“I just think it's a mistake, Beto, I think it’s a mistake,” Castro said, as a slightly stunned-looking O’Rourke nodded. “And I think that if you truly want to change the system, then we’ve got to repeal that section. If not, it might as well be the same policy.”
The all-Texas brawl called back to past presidential candidates who have recognized that no race for the White House is big enough for two candidates from the same state. In 2011, Minnesotans Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty memorably filleted each other’s records in GOP debates before Pawlenty left the race.
But Castro and O’Rourke are also aggressively courting an ascendant Latino electorate that finds itself under threat from the Trump administration — but whose leaders have so far felt ignored by top Democrats. Earlier that day, searing images of a drowned father and baby daughter in the Rio Grande ricocheted across the country, and O’Rourke said in Spanish that he would not have turned back the two migrants, taking issue with Castro’s line of attack.
O’Rourke noted that as a congressman he helped introduce legislation to ensure the U.S. wouldn’t criminalize asylum seekers. They soon fell into a mess of cross-talk, with Castro leaning in and O’Rourke defending himself.
“You are looking at one small part of this. I'm talking about a comprehensive rewrite of this immigration law,” O’Rourke told Castro.
“That's not true,” Castro retorted, continuing: “I'm talking about millions of folks. A lot of folks that are coming are not seeking asylum. A lot of them are undocumented immigrants.”
It all ended with a stern Castro jibing O’Rourke over his seriousness.
“But let me tell you what, title 18 of the U.S. Code, title 21 and 22 already cover human trafficking,” Castro offered in closing. “If you did your homework on this issue, you would know we should repeal this.”
O’Rourke’s aides, including campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon, used the confrontation to point to his strength on immigration, one of the animating issues of O’Rourke’s meteoric political career.
“Clearly, a lot of people had interest in connecting with us, and that’s great because that means people are looking at us, they feel like we have something important to say,” O'Malley Dillon said post-debate.
But it was Castro, not O’Rourke, who drew notice from a panel of undecided Democratic voters assembled in Iowa by CNN. Four of the twelve Iowans said Castro’s name when asked who impressed them late Wednesday night, a small but bright sign for a candidate barely registering in current polls.
Castro knows that few expected that kind of kind of performance from him, saying as much to reporters after the debate. “The media have been paying attention only to certain candidates so far,” he acknowledged, despite a few standout performances at early state events.
“I think that’s going to change after tonight.”