WASHINGTON — As Beto O’Rourke goes into the second Democratic debates in Detroit, he will be trying to achieve a delicate balance, coming across forcefully without seeming overly aggressive, according to campaign aides. But most important, he’ll be striving to overcome what critics saw as an uneven performance in the first round.
O’Rourke, once lauded as a party wunderkind, is hitting something of a rough patch, facing sagging polling numbers and calls for him to run instead for Senate in 2020 against current GOP lawmaker John Cornyn. And while O’Rourke graded his Miami showing an “A” on CNN, an onstage spat with fellow Texan and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro over immigration policy dominated much of the post-debate coverage.
Top campaign donors huddled with the candidate the next day, some expressing concern with O’Rourke’s performance, with one donor telling CNBC that O’Rourke was “out of his element” onstage.
Now the campaign is looking to tell a different story in the Detroit debates, scheduled for the end of this month.
“The biggest thing that we’re hoping viewers walk away from is an impression of strength,” said a campaign source who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We’re still looking to introduce him to folks, to make it clear what he stands for, and his courage of conviction to many who don’t know him.”
O’Rourke isn’t planning to show that strength by throwing barbs at fellow candidates who will be onstage — including frontrunners Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg — yet the source stated that he’s fully prepared to strike back at others who might try to make an example out of him and to highlight what differentiates him from the 24 others vying for the same spot.
A few of those differences were highlighted this week on Twitter, when some members of his staff pointed to O’Rourke’s free events after news broke that a Silicon Valley event hosted for Buttigieg — which was billed by the campaign as grassroots — was charging up to $1,000 for entry.
O’Rourke staff told Yahoo News that there’s no bad blood between the campaigns, however.
“I don’t think we’re in a riff. We’re ready for anything but I wouldn’t say we’re nervous,” the O’Rourke aide added, “Whether it’s Pete, or Warren, or Bullock, we’re more excited for viewers to see Beto onstage and see what makes him, him.”
Buttigieg’s campaign declined to comment.
Michael Trujillo, a senior staffer on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, was unconvinced that a softer strategy would help give a much needed boost to Beto’s campaign.
“Everyone wants to remain pure to their own pathway, but you have to be able, absent of lighting your hair on fire, to break through on stage,” said Trujillo, who insisted that it will be difficult for “first-night” candidates to get their messages across after the second night’s debate, where big players like Biden and Harris are set to take up a lot of news cycle oxygen.
He added that a candidate like O’Rourke, who has “his back against the wall,” needs a breakout moment to help fill fundraising coffers and swing the momentum back in his favor.
“Raise as much money as you can and be relevant again,” Trujillo advised. “This is your shot and I wouldn’t dismiss it.”
But if O’Rourke does miss this second shot, it raises the question for some observers of whether he should even remain in the race. Max Burns, a Democratic strategist and former head of communications at the nonprofit RFK Human Rights, says that by pursuing the presidential nomination rather than challenging Cornyn, O’Rourke may be missing out on his chance to take a “vital, winnable Senate seat.”
“Beto still hasn’t explained to voters why he is the candidate for the moment. He largely disappeared in the first debate,” Burns said. “If that happens again, it’s time to pack it in.”
Whether another less-than-stellar performance will force O’Rourke out is hard to say, but his campaign knows it’s hard up for cash, especially compared to large second-quarter hauls from Sanders, Buttigieg and Biden. Earlier this month, Team Beto sent a note to supporters with the subject line: “Falling behind on fundraising.” In the email, his team told supporters that the campaign has been out-raised by a “handful of candidates” and will likely be “heavily outspent” in the upcoming months.
The aide conceded that viral debate moments are attractive to every campaign, setting up easy pathways for fundraising. But the aide added that “building a movement” is just as important as scoring a moment.
Over the past few weeks, O’Rourke has done what the campaign describes as typical prep, including mock debates, brushing up on policy, and, of course, some jogging. And even if his national support is lagging, residents of his home state are predicted to show strong support for O’Rourke. According to a recent CBS/YouGov poll, O’Rourke is estimated to pick up at least 48 delegates in the Texas primary, behind only Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren.
In the meantime, campaign aides are hoping to recreate that magic on the Detroit stage next week.
“In every race he’s been counted out,” said the aide. “And there’s always been a point where people start paying attention.”
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