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Politics

Talking with Oprah Winfrey, Beto O’Rourke sounds like a candidate again

OROURKE
Beto O’Rourke walks through El Paso’s original shopping district, El Centro, in January 2019. He has acknowledged being “in a funk” after his election loss in November.
(Sarah L. Voisin / Washington Post)

The playbook for readying a presidential launch is pretty straightforward: The candidate shows up in states that host early primaries, signals unwavering resolve, and road tests a clear and concise vision around which to build a campaign.

Beto O’Rourke has been doing none of those things.

Nonetheless, the former Texas congressman’s conversation Tuesday with Oprah Winfrey gave political activists plenty to buzz about. It was a reset for a possible campaign that has suffered recently amid his unbridled ambivalence.

After weeks in which O’Rourke has hidden from the swarm of reporters and fans stalking his every move, the Texan emerged from his conversation with Winfrey having restored some of the mojo that defined his emotional, overflowing town-hall events during the midterm election. He once again boosted excitement about his White House potential, promising that if there is a Beto-for-president campaign, it will be launched within weeks.

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The appearance with Winfrey in Times Square’s PlayStation Theater, scheduled to be aired later this month, was part of a round of her “SuperSoul Conversations” — the former congressman being the only politician interviewed in the group. It set the table for whatever’s next for the lanky El Pasoan whose unconventional Senate campaign in the fall succeeded in creating a movement, even as it failed to unseat incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.

“We want to play as great a role as possible in making sure this country lives up to the expectation, the promise, the potential that we all know her to have,” O’Rourke said as Winfrey — who did not hide her admiration for him — kept nudging him to enter the race. That desire to play a role has pushed him to explore a presidential run, O’Rourke said.

“This question is about whether I can be that person who can play that role, not just to bring the country together at a moment it is as divided as I can remember, but can we together bring this country together around the big things?” he said.

He promised his decision will be made before March rolls in. But O’Rourke cautioned that family is a big factor, and he and his wife and children are carefully weighing the toll his candidacy would take on their personal lives.

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O’Rourke has tested the patience of voters who are eager to see candidates show early clarity and conviction at a moment when many of them view the Trump presidency as a national emergency. As he discreetly slipped into a bar in Ulysses, Kan., a library in Puebla, Colo., a school in Taos, N.M., collecting fodder for self-reflective Medium posts that resemble Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” more than C-Span’s “Road to the White House,” some voters began losing interest. (O’Rourke has dropped several notches to seventh place in an online straw poll of about 35,000 Daily Kos readers — not a scientific sample of voters, but a rough gauge of enthusiasm among activists.)

A confession in one of his posts that he had been “stuck lately. In and out of a funk” didn’t give the impression a presidential rollout was in the mix. Nor did the indecision he expressed about how to address illegal immigration in the one national interview O’Rourke has done in months.

“It has always been tough to be Hamlet in a race for president,” said Joe Trippi, a strategist who has worked on the campaigns of several major Democrats. “It almost always gets worse the more you linger.”

The O’Rourke who took the stage Tuesday more closely resembled the candidate who captivated huge audiences on the stump through the summer and the fall, talking with conviction about the nation’s flawed immigration polices, gun violence and the good he saw in everyone he met on the campaign trail, including the legions of voters he chatted with in deep-red parts of Texas who would never vote for a Democrat.

“We want every single person to bring their unique genius and talent and gifts to what we do as a country, what we are trying to achieve together,” he said. “If I can play some role in helping the country to do that, by God, I am going to do that.”

The former congressman confessed he had been in a “funk” after his loss but assured Winfrey he snapped out of it as he began to reflect on the gains progressives made in the midterm election.

“How you come out of your funk is you stop looking at yourself and start looking at others,” he said. “A lot of really great things came out of” the election.

O’Rourke and his small circle of confidants have seemed undeterred by his recent rough patch. Defying establishment expectations is the Beto brand. They accept that this period of self-exploration and arguably self-indulgent social media posts may confuse some mainstream Democrats. They also know it invites abuse from critics like conservative commentator George Will, who has labeled O’Rourke a “skateboarding man-child whose fascination with himself caused him to livestream a recent dental appointment.”

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O’Rourke enthusiasts say they heard much the same from the establishment before he launched the crusade that upended Texas’ political landscape and set off a small-donor frenzy that smashed national fundraising records.

“The media is confused by Beto and thinks this is not how you run for president,” said Michael Soneff, a Democratic consultant in California who helps lead one of the two unsanctioned “Draft Beto” campaigns. The politician’s anguished musings on Medium and his reluctance to signal his intentions in advance reflect the authenticity his supporters adore, he said.

“The reason people love him is because he is not a conventional politician, he does not speak in sound bites, he is honest about what he is thinking and doing,” Soneff said. “That is why he did so well in Texas.”

DraftBeto.org and DraftBeto2020.org are holding house parties and other organizing events in multiple states. Their leaders boast robust turnout and an impressive roster of experienced operatives and lawmakers who have enlisted to help run the all-volunteer efforts.

As the draft campaigns try to lay groundwork to have some infrastructure in place should O’Rourke launch, the former congressman’s associates in Washington have sought advice from top-shelf strategists — a tacit acknowledgment that it would be hard to run an entire presidential campaign on O’Rourke’s gut alone should he take the plunge. It would be a very different undertaking than the Senate campaign.

Rekindling the kind of excitement O’Rourke did in his Texas bid would be complicated. He would no longer be running against Cruz, a politician Democrats universally despise. He would be up against some of the most popular politicians in the Democratic Party, including Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren and perhaps former Vice President Joe Biden. He would be scrutinized for an ideologically uneven legislative record that played well in a Texas general election but in this race could undermine his prospects for coalition-building on the left.

Party activists in New Hampshire and Iowa express continued intrigue with O’Rourke, but also growing impatience.

“He is a phenomenon,” said Syl Dupuis, who served as mayor of Manchester, N.H., in the 1970s and was sitting at a table with other local politicos at St. Anselm College recently when Michael R. Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor, was giving a talk and testing the waters for his own run.

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O’Rourke “has come out of nowhere and he makes these wonderful speeches. You want to get up and cheer and wave a sign when he talks,” he said. “But I think we are going to be looking more behind the signs, behind the cheers, behind the words to: What can you really get done?”

Another longtime politico seated nearby, state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, also had a measured reaction to the idea of an O’Rourke run. “He’s a popular phenomenon, and the young people like the popular phenomenon,” he said. “He makes a good presentation. The question is the depth.”

Yet a group of New England college students sitting nearby were eager to see O’Rourke jump in.

“I love and welcome the fresh energy he brings into this,” said Trevor Van Niel, a junior studying political science who said O’Rourke has the potential to excite his generation.

“The problems all the candidates are talking about are really going to affect us. This is real for us, yet we are the least active demographic in the political landscape. Any tool that can get this group engaged is needed.”

Times staff writer Janet Hook in Iowa contributed to this report.

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