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O'Rourke, seeking a reset, reaches out to national Democrats

Recent moves suggest the candidate knows he has to talk to party primary voters across the country if he is to compete for the Democratic nomination.
Image: Beto O'Rourke
Democratic presidential candidate and former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke, with his wife, Amy, makes a campaign stop at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, New Hampshire, on May 10.Charles Krupa / AP

Beto O'Rourke is asking for a second chance to make a first impression.

After a rocky rollout — punctuated by a Vanity Fair profile in which he was quoted saying he was "born" to be in the 2020 presidential race — the former Texas congressman imposed on himself a period of major-media and fundraising abstinence while he held scores of town hall meetings in early caucus and primary states.

It didn't seem to help. Dismissing him as thin on substance, The New Republic mocked his "profound emptiness" and Politico concluded that he had "a long history of failing upward." He's watched his national poll numbers dwindle — from a high of 12 percent in a Quinnipiac survey in late March to 5 percent in the same survey a month later — and he's been at 3 percent in several other recent polls.

But with a round of national TV interviews, fresh additions to his campaign team and a more substantial platform beginning to take shape, O'Rourke will now be watched closely by Democratic insiders to see if his soft re-launch — Beto 2.0 — can propel him back into the forefront of the national conversation.

"It's clear to me that he’s going to try to balance his local town hall [strategy] with a national message," Robert Wolf, a major Democratic donor who has given to O'Rourke and several other candidates, said in an interview after he spoke with O'Rourke for roughly an hour Tuesday.

O'Rourke acknowledged his struggles — and his optimism — in an interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow on Monday night.

"I recognize that I can do a better job, also, of talking to a national audience," he said.

The mission includes engaging with high-dollar donors at a time when Vice President Joe Biden's entry into the race has reshuffled the deck of candidates and put pressure on rivals to show potential contributors and supporters that they can compete. Biden has led, by varying but clear margins, in every national primary poll taken since he announced his candidacy last month.

But O'Rourke has numbers of his own to tout, and a possible pivot point. A CNN survey released earlier this month showed him with a 10-point lead over President Donald Trump in a head-to-head matchup, the biggest margin for any Democrat and a clear break for a candidate who was in a slide.

From O'Rourke's perspective, gaining traction is a matter of connecting his work on the ground in Iowa, New Hampshire and other states with a bigger audience — particularly when it comes to matters of substance that Democratic voters across the country care about.

"We chatted a lot about what he is hearing at his town halls and the key topics that they want to discuss and which [of] his ideas are resonating and gaining momentum," Wolf said. "He was very clear how the trade war is impacting rural areas and farmers especially in communities in Iowa. He also spoke with me in depth on his policies on immigration, climate change and gun reform.”

That requires flexing new muscles for a candidate who kept his distance from the national party, and the major media circuit, as he campaigned across Texas last year in his challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. But O'Rourke's recent moves suggest he knows he has to talk to party primary voters across the country if he is to compete for the Democratic nomination.

Climate change has been a major focus for O'Rourke, who distinguishes himself from fellow Democrats with his plan to pay for his proposal by using federal investments to attract private dollars. As a native of El Paso, Texas, who has been steeped in immigration policy for his entire political career, that's a topic he feels comfortable with, and he has been talking more about the contours of gun control measures lately.

But while delving into the nuances of policy offer O'Rourke an opportunity to present himself anew as a candidate of substance to a national audience, they are also riddled with perils. Last week, he praised one of his rivals, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., for proposing a federal firearms licensing program — one day after saying Booker might have "gone too far."

While many Democrats across the country ardently want much stricter gun-control measures, 24 percent of Iowa Democrats favored a state constitutional amendment ensuring the right to bear arms, according to a February Des Moines Register poll. In New Hampshire, which allows independents to vote in the Democratic primary, gun issues may play very differently than they do in closed Democratic primaries in other states.

Beyond the policy, though, O'Rourke's main need may be to convince fellow Democrats that he's not the avatar of privilege he may have appeared to be when he launched his campaign.

On Tuesday, he told Joy Behar, a co-host of ABC's "The View" that his remarks to Vanity Fair were a mistake.

"I think it reinforces that perception of privilege and that headline that said I was born to be in this — in the article I was attempting to say that I felt that my calling was in public service,” he said. “No one is born to be president of the United States of America, least of all me.”

It's still early, and O'Rourke is sure to get the second chance he seeks — the question is whether he'll be able to turn it into a comeback story.

Allen reported from Washington, Haake reported from New York