He dazzled Twitter when he hopped atop coffee shop counters to make his case. He delighted fans by driving himself in a Dodge minivan from town to town through eastern Iowa. He distracted President Trump with spirited hand gestures.
Beto O’Rourke brought his particular brand of theater to Iowa on Thursday and Friday, and the inaugural visit of his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination confirmed one thing: The state of his star power remains strong.
The arrival into small towns of the Beto Caravan – literally, as that was the brand of Dodge he drove — provided notable moments for this nascent presidential race. After months of waxing and waning, leaving pundits speculating as enthusiasm for an O’Rourke candidacy slid in polls, his launch on Thursday disrupted the routine of the campaign.
Rivals took note. A few used the occasion to send out fundraising pitches on which O’Rourke was the subject line. As other candidates fretted that O’Rourke might rebuild the small-donor fundraising juggernaut that shattered campaign finance records in his unsuccessful bid last fall to unseat Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the candidate was cagey about how many dollars had come in on Day 1 of his campaign.
Asked to reveal the numbers, as candidates often do when they have a big haul to brag about, he said: “I choose not to.”
While O’Rourke had no problem turning out crowds, he wasn’t necessarily winning them over. Iowa voters seemed less taken with him than some parts of the national media.
“He’s got a lot of energy, and he’s articulate, but he didn’t go into a lot of details,” said Mark Odell, a 66-year-old retired physician, as he walked out of a house party here that was so packed that half of the would-be audience got stuck waiting outside on the frigid lawn long into the night. “I’m not sure if that’s reflective of the fact that he doesn’t have them, or it is not the right setting. We will see.”
By the time O’Rourke was sprinting into his10th stop, specifics were starting to emerge. Fighting global warming demands a price on carbon, he said in Mount Pleasant.
Thirty miles to the north, in Washington, he said he wants universal healthcare but questioned whether a single-payer system was the fastest route there. He said Social Security can be saved if earners making north of $250,000 start paying higher Social Security taxes.
Some who turned out to see him were Beto die-hards, like Suzanne Bissell, a transplant from El Paso who was inspired by his Texas race.
“I never thought he would get to this point,” said the 49-year-old English teacher. In an indication of the intensity of the news coverage, she learned about the house party down the street from her home not from neighbors, but from a friend in Michigan who was watching the national news.
“It is so great,” she said. “People worry because he doesn’t have a lot of experience. But I think that’s OK. We need someone to take a fresh look.”
That lack of experience provided a theme for questions posed to the candidate throughout the day. Voters vacillated on how much it concerns them. Many said the Texan’s public service record eclipses what Trump brought to the office, and more than a few said O’Rourke was arguably as seasoned as Barack Obama had been when he launched his presidential bid.
“It’s not all government,” O’Rourke said to a group of reporters in Fort Madison, framing how he might compete with the policy expertise of Sen. Elizabeth Warren or the executive experience of Sen. Kamala Harris, California’s former attorney general.
He went on a riff about launching his high-tech business in the unlikely city of El Paso and his many years on the City Council there, where he would gladly take a call when a neighbor’s trash didn’t get picked up.
“Going everywhere, being for everyone, listening to all. That’s really what I think this country needs right now,” he said.
An uncomfortable question about the lack of humility O’Rourke projected in a highly flattering Vanity Fair cover story that corresponded with his campaign launch – in it, O’Rourke declared he was born to run for president – became a pivot point to talk of unity and higher callings.
“I haven’t read the article yet,” he said. “All I can tell you is I am going to every diner, every coffee shop, every home that I can.”
Some of the Iowans who matter most in this election said the energy with which O’Rourke approached his launch bodes well for him here.
“He’s already making a lot of smart moves,” said Mary Jo Riesberg, chair of the Lee County Democrats. She was impressed at how many often-overlooked towns O’Rourke has already touched down in.
After O’Rourke hit Burlington, Tom Courtney, a co-chair of the county Democratic Party and former state senator, was persuaded O’Rourke’s limited political experience could be a selling point. Democrats in the state are exhausted by Iowa’s own long-serving lawmakers, like Sen. Charles E. Grassley and Rep. Steve King, he noted.
“It might be to his advantage,” Courtney said. “Iowans are ready to see someone new that maybe isn’t such a seasoned politician but knows what is going on. He has not been around so long that he is one of the good ol’ boys.”
O’Rourke, whose policy prescriptions are not always easy to pin down, notably appeared to carve out an ideological lane less to the left than some of his rivals, resisting pledges for particular Medicare for All or Green New Deal policies that progressive Democrats have embraced.
The tone he struck managed to impress some young Iowa progressives who had followed his Texas run as well as more moderate older voters.
Asked what was appealing about O’Rourke, Randy Naber, who hosted the Muscatine party, didn’t hesitate: “He’s a centrist.”
At the Mount Pleasant coffee shop, Abbee Kelly and her friend Abby Camp, high school students from Fort Madison who will be eligible to vote in the caucus next year, said they like O’Rourke because he strikes them as more like a young Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist.
When another student in the crowd asked O’Rourke if he identified as a socialist, his answer reassured the roomful of Democrats’ ideological spectrum.
“I’m a capitalist, but there is a lot more we’ve got to do to make sure our capitalism is just,” he said. The current U.S. system he labeled “clearly an imperfect, unfair, unjust and racist capitalist economy.”
O’Rourke has a steep climb ahead. The latest Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom poll had support for him in the state that will hold the nominating season’s first contest at just 5%. And crowds of voters at a house party — picked in part because the small venue would look crowded — don’t always translate into votes. Sometimes they just reflect curiosity.
That was clear talking to Sharon Savage, a 72-year-old teacher who in years past owned a bookstore in town. She was full of compliments about O’Rourke. But then conversation turned to other candidates.
“We just love Joe Biden,” she said. “We went to a meeting once where he was hugging people. I went around maybe three times.”
Her friend Wayne Schultz chimed in: “If you don’t love Biden, you’ve never met him.”
Then they went down a long list of other candidates running, several of whom they seemed to adore just as much as O’Rourke.
“And I like that, I am not going to say his name right, that mayor from Indiana,” said Savage, referring to South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg. “There are so many that look so wonderful.”
Even if they don’t vote for O’Rourke, Iowa voters will be seeing a lot of him. They have already learned more than they probably ever figured to know about his philosophy on minivan driving.
“It’s just a way for me to fully engage,” he told a radio reporter sitting in the passenger seat of the Caravan. “I want to be seeing the beautiful country … seeing that community as we pull in, really taking in Main Street, and I love being behind the wheel. I love driving. I love road trips.”