EL PASO — If Beto O’Rourke runs for president, he should thank President Donald Trump for the kick in the pants.
For three months, O’Rourke had drifted in and out of public view, slipping slightly in public opinion polls as he vacillated on a 2020 bid.
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But Trump’s appearance in O’Rourke’s hometown on Monday night served to elevate the former Texas congressman as a potential rival. And as Trump confronted O’Rourke at a campaign-style rally on an issue central to both of their political identities — immigration and the border wall — O’Rourke seized the opportunity to re-establish his footing.
“Yeah, I’m back in the mix around an issue that could not be more important for our country and for our community,” he told POLITICO before addressing thousands of screaming supporters at a baseball field steps from the coliseum where Trump was redoubling his call for a U.S.-Mexico border wall.
To oppose Trump’s agenda, O’Rourke said, “All of us right now have a responsibility to do all that we can, and this is me doing my best.”
If O’Rourke was testing Democrats’ appetite for his potential candidacy, the signs he saw on Monday were reaffirming — beginning with a march to the rally that was so thick with supporters that organizers linked arms in a circle around O’Rourke and his family to keep them moving through the crowd. Young Democrats rushed the line, wearing “Viva Beto!” buttons and hoisting “Beto 2020” signs. Chants of “Beto, Beto” echoed under freeway overpasses as O’Rourke and the throng passed through.
“You did good, El Paso!” O’Rourke said when he arrived at the baseball field on a cold, windswept night. “We have so much to give, so much to show the rest of the country, and we’re doing it right now.”
The speech — and O’Rourke’s promotion of it beforehand — marked a pivot for O’Rourke from a contemplative period of wayfaring to a more traditional brand of campaign politics following his closer-than-expected loss to Republican Ted Cruz in the Texas Senate race last year.
Engaging the president on the wall, O’Rourke did not retreat to his online journal or livestream a conversation with his dental hygienist about life on the border, as he did last month. Nor did he break for the interstate for a soul-searching journey through the Southwest.
Instead, O’Rourke did what any Democrat tilting toward a run for president might do. He participated in a conference call with reporters Monday afternoon, before Trump arrived for his campaign rally here. Then he timed his speech to bracket Trump’s appearance, ensuring side-by-side coverage.
“There’s certain things where you just can’t go off in the desert and act like Job in the wilderness,” said New Hampshire attorney and Democratic activist Jay Surdukowski, who co-chaired Martin O’Malley’s 2016 presidential campaign in New Hampshire and who traveled to El Paso for O’Rourke’s rally. “You’ve got to get real, and he really is showing he can turn it on and get right back in the campaign mode.”
Trump was dismissive of O’Rourke, mocking him as “a young man who’s got very little going for himself except he’s got a great first name.” But even Republicans could appreciate O’Rourke’s deft political play. Jeff Roe, who was Cruz’s chief strategist, called his handling of Trump’s visit a “home run swing.”
“It shows that if he can find a balance between being smart and strategic and a [yin] to the president’s yang, that’s what Democrats are seeking,” Roe said. “When he’s doing a bong tour through Southwest America, it’s a little less invigorating to Democratic primary voters.”
O’Rourke told reporters Monday that he did not interpret Trump’s visit as a personal challenge, but rather as “an effort to use this community as a prop to make his case for the border wall.”
O’Rourke has been criticizing the existing fencing along the border since long before Trump turned the construction of a wall into a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign and, now, his bid for a second term. Never before could O’Rourke draw so much attention to the issue.
“All of a sudden, out of the blue, El Paso’s gotten big on the national radar,” said Boyd Brown, a former South Carolina lawmaker and former Democratic National Committee member now working on a “Draft Beto” campaign.
The former Democratic congressman has said that he will decide whether to run for president by the end of the month, expressing lingering concerns about the effect a campaign might have on his young family. Some rallygoers yearning for a 2020 run took it as a positive sign that O’Rourke was joined by his wife and children Monday, though they often accompany him to events.
O’Rourke himself called the protest rally “inspiring.”
“Oh, man, I get to be with and behind my community,” O’Rourke said backstage, along the backstop of the baseball diamond. “I love it … This is America, this is the border, this is El Paso. It’s all of those things at their best. It’s so positive, there’s no hate, there’s nothing negative in the slightest about it.”
Then O’Rourke removed his jacket and climbed onto a platform in the infield to address the crowd.
“We are the example that the United States of America needs right now,” he said to cheers. “This is where we make our stand!”