Former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke offered a competent, but not commanding performance, at Tuesday night's Democratic presidential debate in Detroit, presenting his close but losing campaign for the U.S. Senate in Texas as evidence of his greater electability against President Donald Trump.
"Bernie (Sanders) was talking about some of the battleground states in which we compete — there is a new battleground state, Texas and it has 38 electoral college votes," said O'Rourke, sharing the stage at the Fox Theatre in Detroit with nine other Democratic presidential candidates on the first of two nights of the second round of debates designed to clarify and ultimately winnow the crowded field. "And the way that we put it in play was by going to each one of those 254 counties. No matter how red or rural, we did not write you off. No matter how blue, or urban, we did not take you for granted."
"And we didn't trim our sails, either," said O'Rourke, who was a little known three-term congressman from El Paso before his campaign gained steam. "We had the courage of our convictions, talking about universal health care, comprehensive immigration reform, and confronting the challenge of climate before it is too late. We brought everyone in."
It was a familiar refrain for O'Rourke who came within 2.6 points of defeating U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and then, despite the loss, launched a presidential race built on the hope that he could maintain the excitement and novelty that made him a national media and fundraising sensation.
In a post-debate interview with Anderson Cooper of CNN, the sponsoring cable network, O'Rourke doubled down on his insistence that his strength in Texas could be a game-changer nationally, citing the results of a UT Tyler-Texas Opinion Survey released Tuesday that showed him, at 27 percent, the top choice of Democrats in an online survey of 465 registered Texas Democrats. The survey also found O'Rourke leading Trump by 11 points in Texas, by far the strongest performance of any Democrat.
The poll has a sampling error for 1,445 registered voters of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence interval.
When Cooper reminded O'Rourke that he lost to Cruz and that he is at 2% nationally in the most recent Quinnipiac University poll, O'Rourke said, "tonight was great for us," and that his strength in Texas, with independents and Republicans as well as Democrats, is evidence of an appeal he can replicate across the electoral map.
"In the end you can’t write anyone off, you got to bring people in," O'Rourke said.
O'Rourke had strong moments in the debate.
He got the first question about why he would be the "best nominee to take on President Trump and heal the racial divide in America."
"I will call his racism out for what it is, and also talk about its consequences," O'Rourke said. "It doesn't just offend our sensibilities to hear him say, 'send her back' about a member of Congress because she's a woman of color, because she's a Muslim American. It doesn't just offend our sensibilities when he calls Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals or seeks to ban all Muslims from the shores of a country that's comprised of people from the world over, from every tradition of faith."
"It is also changing this country," O'Rourke said. "Hate crimes are on the rise — every single one of the last three years. On the day that he signed his executive order attempting to ban Muslim travel, the mosque in Victoria, Texas, was burned to the ground.
"So, we must not only stand up against Donald Trump and defeat him in this next election, we must also ensure that we don't just tolerate or respect our differences, but we embrace them," he said. "That's what we've learned in El Paso, Texas, my hometown, one of the safest cities in the United States of America, not despite but because it's a city of immigrants and asylum seekers and refugees. We will show their diversity is our strength."
Asked about reparations for slavery, O'Rourke, who recently wrote about how both he and his wife Amy O'Rourke were the descendants of slave-owners, spoke in blunt language about why he supports legislation by U.S. Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee of Houston to create a commission to study reparations.
"The very foundation of this country, the wealth that we have built, the way we became the greatest country on the face of the planet was literally on the backs of those who were kidnapped and brought here by force,” O'Rourke said. “The legacy of slavery and segregation and Jim Crow and suppression is alive and well in every aspect of the economy and in the country.”
But he was quickly trumped by Marianne Williamson, the spiritual guru and self-health author.
"I appreciate what Congressman O'Rourke has said," Williamson said. But, "we don't need another commission to look at evidence."
"People heal when there's some deep truth-telling. We need to recognize that when it comes to the economic gap between blacks and whites in America, it does come from a great injustice that has never been dealt with," said Williamson, who is calling for a $200 to $500 billion payment of a "debt that is owed — that is what reparations is."
She said that sum represents a small portion of the money freed slaves were owed for never receiving the 40 acres and a mule that were promised by General William Tecumseh Sherman in an order that was rescinded by President Andrew Johnson.
No debate bump?
As a hybrid candidate of both progressive and more centrist policy prescriptions, O'Rourke did not stand out in a way likely to dramatically change the trajectory of a campaign that now appears to depend on O'Rourke's undisputed skills as an indefatigable retail, town hall politician and a strong organization, particularly in the first nominating state of Iowa.
"These formats make it difficult for any candidate to break out," Joshua Scacco, a professor of communication at the University of South Florida, said of the debate, in which O'Rourke seemed more comfortable than at the first debate in Miami last month." It makes it tough for Beto O'Rourke because as time goes on without a compelling message and moment, it makes it tougher to justify his candidacy."
"The one opportunity he had to try and break through, in an exchange with Pete Buttigieg on immigration, he failed to follow through with a complete critique," Scacco said of the 37-year-old South Bend, Ind., mayor, whose fast rise has largely come at O'Rourke's expense. "Mayor Buttigieg continued to lead with values-based messages, which differentiates him from candidates who lead with a litany of policy specifics. Crowded fields mean candidates need differentiation strategies or they risk fading into the mix. Buttigieg has one. Beto does not."