EL PASO, TEXAS – Beto O’Rourke, the youthful Democrat who seized national attention last fall with an unexpectedly strong Senate campaign in conservative Texas, formally launched his presidential candidacy Saturday in his hometown of El Paso, vowing to bring a unifying dynamic, progressive values and generational change to American politics.
“This is our moment of truth, and we cannot be found wanting,” he told an enthusiastic crowd of at least 1,000.
Speaking from a spot only blocks from the border with Mexico, he underscored some of his most vigorous differences with the man he hopes to succeed in the White House — Donald Trump — without ever naming the U.S. president.
While Trump seeks to build a border wall and threatened just days ago to close the frontier if Mexico fails to stem the influx of undocumented immigrants, O’Rourke described America as “a country of immigrants and asylum seekers and refugees (who) are the very premise of our strength, of our success and, yes, our security.”
In an implicit rebuke to Trump, O’Rourke said that his hometown was safer because of its immigrants, not more dangerous.
If elected he said he would pursue comprehensive immigration reform, reunite immigrant families separated at the border and “bring millions more (undocumented immigrants) out of the shadows.”
Speaking energetically as he roamed about a stage with the sleeves of his Oxford shirt rolled, the 46-year-old listed his priorities: remaking an economy “that works too well for too few and not at all for too many”; moving toward “high-quality universal health care”; and seizing the nation’s “last best hope of averting a (climate) catastrophe.”
He called for the U.S. to wind down its foreign wars, strengthen its alliances, and “end these love affairs with dictators and strongmen.”
His message clearly was geared not just to El Pasoans but to Democrats nationwide as the party gears up for an extended campaign to see who will challenge Trump in 2020.
O’Rourke pointed out that he helped boost voter turnout in Texas — particularly among the young — to some of its highest levels in years.
He had made his intention to run for the presidency known in mid-March, and in a single day raked in a huge $6.1 million in donations, giving himself instant relevance in the crowded Democratic field.
He since has been campaigning — usually before large crowds — in early-voting states including Iowa and New Hampshire.
And on Saturday, O’Rourke — who during his Senate campaign visited every one of Texas’s 254 counties — continued his peripatetic ways, heading from his El Paso kickoff to rallies in Houston and Austin, the state capital.
The 46-year-old former congressman and onetime punk rocker was born Robert O’Rourke but widely known as “Beto.” His nearly successful campaign in November against incumbent Senator Ted Cruz brought him national attention.
Some Democrats hope O’Rourke might even be able to turn reliably red Texas to Democratic blue, though first he would have to wade through the huge field of 16 Democrats now in the running — including a popular fellow Texan, Julian Castro.
Other Democratic rivals include senators Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar.
The Democratic frontrunner, former vice president Joe Biden, is not even officially in the race, but polls show him as the leading contender for the party’s nomination, with 29.2 percent support, according to the RealClearPolitics average of the six latest surveys.
Sanders is second at 21.8 percent, followed by Harris at 9.8 and O’Rourke at 9.2.
The newest rising star of the pack is Pete Buttigieg, 37, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana and a military veteran, who would be the youngest and the first openly gay president should he win.
O’Rourke is an unorthodox candidate, with a comparatively thin political resume and with a seeming allergy to being labeled a liberal. During his six years in Congress, O’Rourke was more politically cautious, joining the House’s centrist coalition.
But as the Democratic presidential field tilts leftward, he has hit on several progressive talking points.
In addition to supporting a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, he backs marijuana legalization and champions the Green New Deal, a sweeping climate change mitigation framework.
He called Saturday for paid family leave, equal pay for women and an end to for-profit prisons.
On his first major campaign tour, which took him to eight states including New Hampshire, South Carolina and Ohio, he met people in coffee shops, school gyms and taquerias, offering a unifying vision packed with optimism but short on policy specifics.