After watching tape of his panned performance in the first Democratic debate, Beto O’Rourke understood he had a problem: He needed to come across as more human and less rehearsed.
Campaign aides and friends say they believe the former Texas congressman has turned a corner since then — and has shown it in recent interviews.
But aides also acknowledge the stakes are high in Tuesday night’s debate and that to jump-start his flagging campaign, he has to turn in a better performance in Detroit, when a vast national audience is watching, than he did in Miami in late June.
Shortly after the first debate, a senior campaign aide said, O’Rourke campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon re-watched the tape, and then told O’Rourke he needed to do so, too. O’Rourke and his wife Amy watched parts of the debate while traveling together. Then, he re-watched it again on his own.
He came to the same conclusion his campaign staff had: He’d been wooden — too focused on what he’d begun the night hoping to accomplish — and missed important opportunities to engage with other candidates and fight back against attacks.
O’Rourke’s preparations for Detroit have focused on conveying “strength and confidence,” the aide said: strength on what he stands for, and confidence that he has a story to tell and is going to be the one to tell it.
Another source familiar with the campaign’s thinking said his prep sessions for Tuesday’s debate were more intense than the first debate, with aides challenging O’Rourke on his positions and pushing him to be more aggressive if he’s attacked.
O’Rourke admitted his performance needs to improve in the second debate, saying he had “tunnel vision” in the first debate and needs to “widen that focus to see the larger picture” in the next one.
“I think something needs to come through that’s a lot more me in the way that I give those answers,” he said.
‘He just feels a little bit more liberated now’
Missing in that first debate were O’Rourke’s human touch and ability to defy traditional ideological labels that just a year ago had evoked comparisons to Barack Obama and Robert F. Kennedy.
The magic of O’Rourke’s 2018 Texas Senate campaign, in which he shattered fundraising records and rocketed from a back-bench congressman to a Democratic star, has proven difficult to recapture. The national media spotlight of a presidential race means he can’t build his campaign slowly through town halls as he did a year ago. And what many supporters see as O’Rourke’s best skill — engaging with and often disarming those who challenge him from the right — isn’t on display when O’Rourke is under siege from the left, as he was in the first debate during exchanges with former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julin Castro and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The second quarter was a long struggle for O’Rourke. His fundraising plummeted, with his $3.6 million haul positioning him well outside the five top-polling candidates.
Candidates who struggled after entering races with high expectations have engineered comebacks before — as then-Arizona Sen. John McCain did on the way to the 2008 Republican nomination. But they’ve also faced early exits, like former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2012 and former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2016.
O’Rourke’s Texas Senate race, in which he narrowly lost to Republican Ted Cruz, gives his campaign reason for hope. He also struggled in his first debate with Cruz — but improved in time for their second and final showdown.
And now that O’Rourke has gone through a difficult stretch, friends say he feels free to be himself without worrying about the political consequences.
“He just seemed very at ease when I saw him,” said Steve Ortega, a longtime O’Rourke friend in El Paso who spoke with the former congressman last week.
“I think he just feels a little bit more liberated now instead of just listening to a hundred different people tell you a hundred different things about what you need to do and how you need to act and what you need to say.”
In recent days, O’Rourke’s aides say they believe he has turned a corner and is finally finding a way to translate the energy some of his town hall events have into engaging appearances on TV, including in recent interviews on ABC’s “The View” and NBC’s Seth Meyers’ late-night talk show.
The clearest example came during an exchange with Meghan McCain on “The View.”
McCain criticized O’Rourke because the former Texas congressman had compared President Donald Trump standing by as a North Carolina crowd chanted “send them back” in reference to four congresswomen to a “an impromptu Nuremberg rally.”
O’Rourke stood by the comparison. “Asking four women of color to ‘go back’ to their own country, and then connect it with everything else that he’s doing — the press as the enemy of the people. There is only one path that that will take us down,” he said.
McCain said O’Rourke was alienating Trump supporters.
“You’re talking about Trump supporters, comparing them to Nazis in Nuremberg, that sounds extreme to me as well,” McCain said. “When Democrats come on here and wax poetic about extremism — I’m not saying Trump isn’t doing it, but you’re calling everybody who was in that North Carolina rally a Nazi.”
“From my standpoint, it seems like the left is pretty extreme as well,” she said.
“We all have accountability for our actions and everyone who shouted to ‘send them back’ is responsible for that as well,” O’Rourke responded as the audience erupted in cheers.
Taking on Buttigieg
Two sources familiar with O’Rourke’s campaign’s thinking said his camp is eager to see him on stage with Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor whose ascent has happened at the same time O’Rourke was dropping in the polls and the fundraising race.
One source identified two areas on which Buttigieg could be vulnerable.
“The biggest thing is the donors,” the source said, a reference to Buttigieg’s raising money through pricey fundraisers. O’Rourke has held fundraisers, but relies largely on his massive email list and rejects money from all political action committees.
The second is an argument that the “technocratic fixing of the country cannot be done simply through a McKinsey lens” — a jab at Buttigieg’s years spent with the consulting firm.
To address a policy issue, the source said, you need to “understand and empathize with what’s behind those problems,” suggesting O’Rourke is better able than Buttigieg to do that.
Buttigieg’s national press secretary Chris Meagher responded to those comments, noting O’Rourke’s failure so far to make much headway in the polls.
“Congressman O’Rourke can feel free to attack the more than 400,000 people who have invested in Pete’s campaign,” Meagher said. “Pete is focused on the future and tackling the changes facing our nation head on — that’s why our campaign has actually gained traction. We’re looking forward to discussing this vision in the next debate.”
O’Rourke is also working to make sure he isn’t seen only as a moderate candidate in a field with more progressive options. Last week, as former special counsel Robert Mueller testified on Capitol Hill, O’Rourke’s campaign released a lengthy list of times he has called for Trump’s impeachment — dating back to August 2017, when he was a Senate candidate in Texas. It was a move that had made O’Rourke difficult to fit into an ideological box during the Senate race — a reality that helped him appeal to Democrats broadly then.
“The House has to begin these proceedings,” O’Rourke said last week. “Whatever the popularity, the polling, the political prospects, they’ve got to put the country before anything else, and that demands beginning impeachment now.”