AUSTIN, Texas — Beto's back, but is he running?
After a period of self-imposed exile, the former Democratic congressman returned to center stage Saturday as he ramps up for a potential 2020 presidential bid, appearing at South by Southwest for the premiere of a new documentary about his failed Senate campaign against Ted Cruz.
It's been 10 days since O'Rourke said publicly that he's made a decision about his political future, but he told reporters on Saturday that he wanted to reveal "it the right way and tell everyone at the same time."
"I’ve got to be on the timeline that works for my family and for the country and so that's the timeline we're on," he said.
As O'Rourke slipped into the Paramount Theater for the screening of the documentary, "Running for Beto," an email teasing "Beto's big announcement" landed in supporters' inboxes.
"If you're on the edge of your seat about Beto's decision around a potential 2020 run for president, you're not alone," wrote Cynthia Cano, who was the deputy campaign manager of his Senate bid. "Many of us are crossing our fingers and hoping that Beto has decided to run."
It's the clearest public indication yet that O'Rourke may be preparing for a possible run, as his senior aides have begun the behind-the-scenes work of finding staff for a potential campaign.
But preparing for a run is not the same as running — just ask Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who both announced last week that they will not be getting into the race for president after extensive explorations.
But following months of dormancy, O'Rourke's political machine has whirred back to life.
"Everything has skyrocketed. People are sensing that something is coming," said Nate Lerner, the co-founder of Draft Beto, which is trying to push O'Rourke into the 2020 race. "We're in the eye of the storm now."
Senior figures in O'Rourke's orbit have begun holding meetings and phone calls to discuss potential jobs with Democratic operatives, who come away with the impression that O'Rourke has made up his mind in favor of running.
And O'Rourke's massive email fundraising list, which helped him raise $79 million for his Senate race, suddenly sprang back to life after months of inaction. That's an important step, digital political strategists say, since email providers like Gmail downgrade inactive senders by sending more of their messages to spam.
But with a dozen other Democrats already in the race, many in Washington are bewildered about why O’Rourke waited so long to capitalize on the enthusiasm generated by his Senate campaign.
"His momentum was unmatched, and he was able to manifest that excitement into record-breaking fundraising numbers," said Democratic strategist Adrienne Elrod. "That is why it remains a mystery why, after narrowly losing the Senate race, he didn't seize on that momentum and jump into the presidential campaign early in for first quarter."
"From fundraising to staffing to earned media, he would have had an advantage across the board," Elrod continued. "Should he seek the Democratic nomination, I think he will still be a top contender but time will soon tell if his moment in the long term has passed."
Meanwhile, O'Rourke has lost some shine after taking fire from allies of Bernie Sanders on his left and writing dispatches from the soul-searching post-election road trip that many found to be self-indulgent oversharing. Others took note of his struggles to answer specific policy questions in an interview with the Washington Post.
The new documentary, directed by David Modigliani and produced financially and editorially independent from O'Rourke, could serve as a valuable introduction for Americans who didn't follow his Texas campaign.
O’Rourke granted Modigliani near-total access to both his campaign and his family, and it shows what earned him a fawning national following — his charisma, his accessibility, his oratory.
But it also captures the candidate dropping f-bombs, clenched with stress, complaining about having to "dance" for the press, and snapping at his staff.
"The only feedback I gave was, 'Can you take out some of the expletives from Beto,'" his wife, Amy, said after the premiere.
"I know I was a giant asshole to be around sometimes," O'Rourke acknowledges at one point in the documentary to his top aides, who do not dispute him on the point.
And the films dwells on toll the campaign took on his family.
"It was incredibly emotional to watch that," O'Rourke said Saturday during a Q&A session after the premiere, with Amy and daughter, Molly, by his side.
"David asked if we could do this at breakfast one day in Austin. And I was like yeah, what the fu--?" he recalled. "I just didn't think it would be this. And I don’t think we fully appreciated how involved they would be."
In the film, Amy recalls how she was pregnant with their son when O'Rourke first told her he wanted to run for Congress years ago.
"I was just crying and crying because I couldn't understand why he would almost, like, sacrifice our family to run for that level of office? Because everything I knew about life on the Hill was that was like dirty and slim," she says, before explaining she came around to the idea.
O’Rourke allies say he's taken his time to make a decision about 2020 because he worried about putting his family through another campaign.
"I appreciate the fact that he's being really thoughtful about it and taking his time," Jody Casey, his friend who managed his Senate campaign, said in a podcast interview last month with liberal Twitter personalities Ed and Brian Krassenstein. "He also is a dad to three kids who are 8, 10 and 12, and I think that's a serious factor for he and Amy when they make this decision together."
The only thing about his future that O’Rourke and his team have made clear is that he won't run for Senate again against Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Amy, who has publicly expressed hesitation about her husband's political ambition, smiled when the friendly audience at the movie premiere cheered for O'Rourke to run again.