O’Rourke ‘play­ing hard to get’ ahead of race

The Hamilton Spectator - - Canada & World - WILL WEIS­SERT

AUSTIN, Texas — You won’t see Beto O’Rourke an­nounce whether he’s run­ning for pres­i­dent in 2020 for a while. But you may see him do al­most any­thing else in the mean­time.

“So, I’m here at the den­tist,” the for­mer Demo­crat con­gress­man said with a gig­gle dur­ing a teeth-clean­ing seen live on In­sta­gram last week, be­fore quizzing the den­tal hy­gien­ist about life along the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der.

Any­one grum­bling about livestream over­ex­po­sure can catch O’Rourke on more tra­di­tional air­waves next month in New York, when Oprah Win­frey in­ter­views him.

O’Rourke barged into last year’s Se­nate race al­most laugh­ably early, in March 2017, in­sist­ing he was a cred­i­ble con­tender against the in­cum­bent, Repub­li­can Ted Cruz, when al­most no one na­tion­ally knew of O’Rourke.

Now, he’s do­ing al­most any­thing to keep peo­ple pay­ing at­ten­tion to him with­out for­mally start­ing a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign for 2020. He’s not ex­pected to de­cide un­til next month at the ear­li­est whether he’s run­ning.

These days, that counts as play­ing hard to get. In­flu­en­tial ac­tivists in Iowa and else­where are clam­our­ing for him to get in the race while some po­ten­tial ri­vals move their time­lines ear­lier. So far, in­ter­est in O’Rourke has held after his near upset of Cruz, but for how much longer?

“They’re not go­ing to wait for­ever,” Mark Jones, a po­lit­i­calscience pro­fes­sor at Rice Univer­sity in Hous­ton, said of Demo­cratic cam­paign op­er­a­tives, donors, ac­tivists and fel­low politi­cians look­ing to pick sides or of­fer en­dorse­ments. “The more can­di­dates who start to for­mally launch their can­di­da­cies, the greater the pres­sure will rise on Beto.”

Mas­sachusetts’ El­iz­abeth War­ren an­nounced on New Year’s Eve that she’d formed a pres­i­den­tial ex­ploratory com­mit­tee, hop­ing to get an early jump on peo­ple such as O’Rourke, for­mer vice-pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den and Sens. Corey Booker of New Jer­sey, Bernie Sanders of Ver­mont and Ka­mala Har­ris of Cal­i­for­nia. Since then, War­ren has seen en­thu­si­asm rise, es­pe­cially after a suc­cess­ful trip to Iowa, which kicks off pres­i­den­tial pri­mary vot­ing.

Ju­lian Cas­tro, hous­ing chief un­der then-pres­i­dent Barack Obama, kicked off his cam­paign Satur­day and could ap­peal to the same His­panic com­mu­nity that O’Rourke may count on as a bilin­gual na­tive of the bor­der­land city of El Paso.

A string of an­nounce­ments from top Democrats could come this month. While still de­cid­ing, O’Rourke plans to travel the coun­try and meet vot­ers be­yond Texas, but avoid places such as Iowa and New Hamp­shire, home to the na­tion’s first pres­i­den­tial pri­mary, even though Democrats there have in­vited him.

“My feel­ing is he’s lost a lit­tle mo­men­tum and that’s the down­side of be­ing a me­dia prod­uct,” said Nor­man Solomon, a Sanders del­e­gate to the 2016 Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion from Cal­i­for­nia. Solomon said ques­tions re­main about whether O’Rourke’s vot­ing record dur­ing his three terms in Con­gress is too cen­trist to ex­cite the Demo­cratic base.

That any­one would ask if O’Rourke is wait­ing too long with the elec­tion 22 months away is un­usual. But anger over Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has cre­ated an out­sized Demo­cratic ap­petite to go on the po­lit­i­cal at­tack. And be­cause im­peach­ment seems un­likely, fast-for­ward­ing 2020 cam­paigns may be­come nec­es­sary.

“Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns have re­ally be­come al­most re­al­ity tele­vi­sion pro­grams,” said Ray Sul­li­van, a vet­eran of the 2012 Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial cam­paign of thenTexas Gov. Rick Perry. Perry waited un­til Au­gust 2011 to join an al­ready months-old Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial pri­mary field and briefly be­came the fron­trun­ner — some­thing that seems im­pos­si­ble just two pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns later.

“The at­ten­tion span of ac­tivists and vot­ers and even the me­dia has be­come so short, and the at­ten­tion-grab­bing events so vac­u­ous and fleet­ing, that the can­di­dates would be very smart, I think, to get in early and iden­tify and carve out their niche,” Sul­li­van said.

For O’Rourke, 46, an ex-punk rocker, try­ing to project a downto-earth im­age may be a ma­jor sell­ing point to vot­ers. But Sul­li­van raises this ques­tions: “What if an­other can­di­date gets in and cap­tures the imag­i­na­tion of Twit­ter and the ac­tivists and there may not be room for the celebrity of Beto when he’s ready?”

Still, O’Rourke’s de­lays haven’t less­ened the en­thu­si­asm of op­er­a­tives from past Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns who have formed “Draft Beto 2020” groups.

“We’re build­ing an ap­pa­ra­tus that we can hand off to an ac­tual cam­paign should he run,” said Boyd Brown, a prom­i­nent South Carolina Demo­crat and for­mer mem­ber of the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee. He is among the lead­ers of the O’Rourke draft move­ment in the South’s first pri­mary state. “We’re treat­ing this like a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign un­til told oth­er­wise.”

Work­ing in O’Rourke’s favour is a lack of a per­ceived 2020 “heirap­par­ent” can­di­date who can draw in donors and top op­er­a­tives. That model may be evap­o­rat­ing any­way, though, be­cause the two politi­cians who looked to take on that role head­ing into the 2016 cam­paign, Repub­li­can Jeb Bush and Demo­crat Hillary Clin­ton, fell short of the pres­i­dency.

“Ev­ery­body who has ever thought about run­ning for pres­i­dent is threat­en­ing to do it this time,” said Peter Brown, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of the Quin­nip­iac Univer­sity Poll. “The sheer size of the po­ten­tial field throws out the rules of the game that have been cre­ated by years of cam­paigns.”

ERIC GAY THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Rep. Beto O'Rourke barged into last year’s Texas Se­nate race al­most laugh­ably early in March 2017.

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