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Beto O'Rourke heads to Iowa as all signs point to a 2020 run

Image: Beto O'Rourke
Beto O'Rourke attends the "Running with Beto" Premiere 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas on March 9, 2019. Copyright Matt Winkelmeyer Getty Images for SXSW
Copyright Matt Winkelmeyer Getty Images for SXSW
By Garrett Haake and Kailani Koenig and Vaughn Hillyard with NBC News Politics
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The former Texas congressman is set to make his first trip to the early caucus state this weekend.


WASHINGTON — Beto O'Rourke is heading to Iowa. The would-be presidential candidate will make his initial foray into the first 2020 nominating state this weekend, multiple Democratic sources tell NBC News, amid growing signs that the former Texas congressman plans to announce his decision on a White House bid before the end of March.

O'Rourke will campaign in Waterloo, Iowa Saturday on behalf of Democratic state senate candidate Eric Giddens, according to multiple Democratic sources. On Monday night, Giddens released a video of O'Rourke wearing a University of Northern Iowa hat and encouraging students to support him in his upcoming race.

Iowa Democratic political circles were also abuzz Monday with word that O'Rourke may have recruited a top Iowa political consultant and Hawkeye state native onto his potential campaign team.

Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price told NBC News that Norm Sterzenbach had left his role as a consultant with the party on Friday after launching its caucus operations for 2020, including the formation of virtual caucuses that will allow Iowans to participate if they are out of state on the day of the vote.

Sterzenbach, who formerly served as the state party's executive director, left his position to join the efforts of a potential presidential candidate's team, Price said. Sterzenbach did not immediately respond to calls from NBC News.

O'Rourke will also speak on a conference call this weekend with the High School Democrats of America, the group announced Monday. The HSDA website says questions for O'Rourke must be "brief and unrelated to Beto as a potential 2020 candidate."

Presidential candidates Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard have also spoken to that organization, as has former Vice President Joe Biden.

O'Rourke burst on the national stage last year when he challenged GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in one of the most closely watched senate races of the 2018 midterm elections, losing by just 2.5 points in the heavily Republican state. His campaign was propelled by enormous grassroots support for his candidacy and national appeal among younger Democrats. That support immediately fueled rumors of a likely presidential bid that have only grown stronger since November.

Anticipating a possible announcement, the conservative Club for Growth released a two-minute long ad on Monday targeting O'Rourke that will run in the Des Moines media market, the group told NBC News, with "five figures" worth of spending behind it.

O'Rourke must still overcome several logistical hurdles before he can enter the 2020 race. With no PAC support and not current holding an elected office, he cannot and has not officially hired any staff. But a person familiar with O'Rourke's plans told NBC News on Monday there are "active discussions with staff to be ready for day one." Further, exact details of how and when an announcement will be made remain in flux, sources close to O'Rourke say.

Recent polling in Iowa and nationally has shown that O'Rourke remains popular with Democratic primary voters, months after his closer-than-expected loss in Texas. In early voting states, support for O'Rourke remains strong and he consistently polls in the top five among potential Democratic candidates.

But his delay in announcing a campaign, and his lengthy blog posts during and after an early spring road trip, has led to some eye-rolling and complaints about wasted time among Democratic operatives and analysts.

"I think that's all a little overblown, but the sooner he gets into the field, the better," Boyd Brown, a former South Carolina state senator and DNC member, told NBC News. "We're just under a year out, so there's plenty of time. Somebody who can catch fire as quickly as he will, the clock isn't really an issue."

"His prospects in South Carolina would be very good. There's certainly a lane there for an exciting, young, inspiring candidate. He clearly fits that mold. He brings a lot of good issues to the table, a lot of energy to the Democratic party," Brown said.

O'Rourke's team has also had conversations about potential campaign staff positions with people linked to the nation's first primary state of New Hampshire, according to two Democrats connected to the state who are not involved in an effort to draft O'Rourke.

"There is a lot of interest in Beto O'Rourke visiting" New Hampshire, said Concord attorney Jay Surdukowski, who hosted a "Draft Beto" house party and has been one of the most outspoken advocates there for his candidacy. "In some ways, this kind of unorthodox strategy of playing 'hard to get' may pay dividends."

Although Surdukowski has had limited contact with O'Rourke's team, he's been a vocal enough supporter of the former congressman that "not a day goes by that I don't get a dozen calls or emails from folks all over the state asking, 'have you heard anything?' There are at least a dozen groups that want to host him, and that number will probably grow larger if he does make any kind of announcement."

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