Beto O’Rourke Makes Trump, Not Early-Voting States, His New Priority

Tyler Pager

(Bloomberg) -- Beto O’Rourke rebooted his campaign Thursday, laying out a novel path to the Democratic nomination that largely ignores the primary calendar and just focuses on taking on President Donald Trump in places where he may have aggrieved people.

In a fiery speech rebuking Trump, O’Rourke said he would campaign in places and in communities that he says have been most affected by Trump’s rhetoric and policies.

“What President Trump says, and what he does, does not just offend our sensibilities or our understanding of the traditions of this great country, it changes who we are as a country,” he said Thursday.

“If we do not wake up to this threat, then we, as a country, will die in our sleep,” he added.

The speech ended a more-than-weeklong pause in O’Rourke’s campaign in reaction to the mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso, Texas.

While O’Rourke’s new strategy might earn him additional media attention, it comes with the risk of losing support in the crucial early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, three states with early contests, where voters value deeply retail politics and robust organizing efforts.

Critics Abound

And the field of people who criticize Trump is crowded. Many of the presidential candidates, including frontrunner Joe Biden, have staked their candidacies on admonishing the president.

“He doesn’t get a clear shot at this lane,” said Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. “He’s not the only one there.”

But O’Rourke said he was inspired to change the direction of his campaign after a reporter asked him during his break if he was going to the Iowa State Fair, where he was scheduled to speak along with the rest of the Democratic field.

“And I said, ‘No, I can’t go back for that, but I also can’t go back to that,’” he said.

First, O’Rourke will head to Jackson, Mississippi, on Friday to visit with families affected by the recent raids that targeted undocumented immigrants, but left children coming home to empty homes with no word on their parents’ whereabouts. He will then travel to Arkansas to speak at the state’s Democratic Party Clinton dinner.

Texas Senate

O’Rourke, who narrowly lost a 2018 Senate race to incumbent Ted Cruz, entered the presidential race with high expectations, but he quickly fell out of the top tier. That drop intensified calls for him to run for the Senate against John Cornyn in 2020. He shot down those calls once again Thursday.

“Some have suggested I stay in Texas and run for Senate, but that would not be good enough for for El Paso and it would not be good enough for this country,” he said. “We must take the fight directly to the source -- to the person that has caused this pain and peril: Donald Trump.”

O’Rourke has qualified for the third debate in Houston but his polling average is at 3%, leaving him in sixth place, according to Real Clear Politics.

Despite O’Rourke’s insistence that he has no interest in running for Senate, Stein still said O’Rourke could change course.

O’Rourke’s campaign framed the change in strategy as a moral decision, not a political one.

“Beto is not making this decision about how he spends his time with some secret, grand political strategy,” said Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman for his campaign. “This is a very personal thing. 22 people were killed in his hometown and they were killed because of our president.”

Hitt added: “For him, this is not a political calculus decision. This is about what campaigns are about. I don’t think they’re about eating pork chops.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Tyler Pager in Washington at tpager1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Wendy Benjaminson at wbenjaminson@bloomberg.net, Steve Geimann

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