By James Oliphant
BURLINGTON, Iowa (Reuters) – Beto O’Rourke launched a run on Thursday for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, hoping his message and the fame gained from his unsuccessful election challenge against U.S. Senator Ted Cruz in Texas last year set him apart from a diverse field.
O’Rourke, a former three-term U.S. congressman and a punk rocker in his youth, pledged to tackle “the interconnected crises in our economy, our democracy and our climate.”
“This moment of peril produces, perhaps, the greatest moment of promise for this country,” O’Rourke, 46, said in an online video.
O’Rourke, who has traded on his charisma to sprint up the political ladder, enters a crowded field of Democratic hopefuls with a proven ability to raise money from donors online and a willingness to campaign relentlessly.
Unlike many of his opponents who launched campaigns while barely registering in public opinion polls, O’Rourke begins in sixth place in the RealClearPolitics average of polls, receiving an average of 5 percent.
But O’Rourke is far from a front-runner just yet – with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Vice President Joe Biden, who is considering a White House bid, leading polls. And it remains to be seen how he will fare in a Democratic nominating battle with a heavy emphasis on progressive policies and diversity.
The Democratic field features the most diverse set of candidates to run for president in American history. O’Rourke will have to make a robust argument about why Democrats should instead back a white man.
O’Rourke, whose given name is Robert Francis, as a child acquired his nickname “Beto,” a common shortening of “Roberto” for Spanish speakers. Republican critics frequently refer to him by his given name, a jab meant to underscore that he is not of Hispanic descent.
He lands squarely in the middle of an internal party debate about whether to nominate a liberal firebrand or a centrist. O’Rourke, who critics say has offered little details about where he stands on myriad issues, will face a test on whether he can match up with policy heavyweights like Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
“He injects a lot of excitement, but I also think he has a huge bar to meet – the expectations for him are so high that it’s going to be tough not to disappoint some people who are now seeing him through rose-coloured glasses,” said Democratic strategist Maria Cardona, who worked on presidential campaigns for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
O’Rourke followed his announcement by launching a three-day visit to Iowa, the Midwestern farm state that will hold the first Democratic nominating contest in February 2020. He will hold a launch event in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, on March 30.
The Iowa trip will be the first test of whether O’Rourke can convert the enthusiasm he built in Texas to the national stage.
Greeted by cheers when he arrived early Thursday at an event in Keokuk, Iowa, O’Rourke told the crowd it was his first visit ever to their state. He outlined challenges facing the United States, from immigration to climate change, saying, “The foundational challenge to get all of this done, is to fix our democracy.”
O’Rourke premised much of his appeal in the Senate race on his refusal to accept money from political action committees, and instead raised $80 million from small-dollar donors, a national record for a Senate bid. He also ran a campaign staffed by volunteers instead of political professionals.
Building a national presidential operation, however, is a different matter. O’Rourke will need those same donors to flock to him in a way that makes him competitive with other well-funded candidates, including other grassroots stars such as Sanders and Warren.
Party liberals have zeroed in on O’Rourke’s refusal while in the U.S. House of Representatives to co-sponsor legislation providing “Medicare-for-all” and free college tuition, although during his Senate campaign O’Rourke promoted the idea of universal healthcare.
In his six years in Congress representing part of West Texas along the border with Mexico, O’Rourke largely did not ally himself with progressives, instead joining the centrist “New Democrat” coalition.
“I’m not big on labels,” O’Rourke told reporters in December when asked whether he could be considered a progressive.
Last month, he appeared to try to separate himself further from that wing of the party when he pointedly called himself a capitalist. “I don’t see how we’re able to meet any of the fundamental challenges that we have as a country without, in part, harnessing the power of the market,” O’Rourke said.
O’Rourke is the 15th Democrat in the field and the second from Texas, and his opponents took notice. U.S. Senator Kamala Harris of California sent an email fundraising appeal to her supporters on Thursday that had his name in the subject line.
Fellow Texan Julian Castro distributed a list of Texas Democrats who had already gotten behind the former federal housing chief’s campaign.
Trump, who became known for slapping derisive nicknames onto opponents during the 2016 campaign, focused on O’Rourke’s hands on Thursday when asked about O’Rourke’s campaign announcement.
“Well, I think he’s got a lot of hand movement. I’ve never seen so much hand movement I said, ‘Is he crazy or is that just the way he acts?’” Trump said during an Oval Office appearance with Ireland’s prime minister.
(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Writing by Ginger Gibson; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jonathan Oatis)