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O’Rourke’s sprint out of the gate leaves Democratic field gasping

POLITICO logo POLITICO 3/20/2019 By David Siders and Christopher Cadelago
a group of people standing in front of a building: Beto O'Rourke's lightning speed campaign leaves staffers for some of his fellow Democratic hopefuls miffed. © Charles Krupa/AP Photo Beto O'Rourke's lightning speed campaign leaves staffers for some of his fellow Democratic hopefuls miffed.

PLYMOUTH, N.H. — By Thursday afternoon, Beto O’Rourke will have campaigned in all 10 counties in New Hampshire — a sprint that will take him all of 48 hours. Last week he was all over Iowa, and in between, he traversed the upper Midwest.

With no job tying him to Washington or a state capital — and a genuine zeal for the open road — O’Rourke is rallying college students, bounding onto café countertops and pressing himself into the news cycle in different media markets by the hour.

“We’re setting the pace,” O’Rourke said in Iowa over the weekend, after running a 5K race at the start of a frenzied day of campaigning in the first-in-the-nation caucus state. He then traveled to Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, before driving his rented Dodge Grand Caravan more than 430 miles east to New Hampshire.

In less than a week since announcing his campaign, the Texas Democrat has singlehandedly quickened the clip of the early presidential primary, annoying some of his competitors — and driving others nuts.

O’Rourke is hardly the first presidential candidate this year to arrive in Iowa or New Hampshire, states that presidential contenders have been visiting since the midterm elections last year. But O’Rourke is benefiting from large crowds and a protracted run of media attention following the announcement of his campaign last week.

His first-day fundraising of $6.1 million, which he reported Monday, surpassed all of his competitors. And by waiting until Wednesday to announce his average donation of $47, O’Rourke generated another batch of stories. Later, as O’Rourke dashed from an event in Plymouth, an elderly woman craning her neck to see him climbed shakily onto a bench.

“Hey,” she said, “he stands on furniture.”

Aides to other top Democrats running for president granted in recent days they’ve inescapably been pulled into the “Beto Show,” texting quips about his wild arm gestures and his table-top campaigning — while acknowledging he’s giving voters and reporters an up-close view that they, by and large, are not.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, for one, gives nearly the same speech at every event. He eschews coffee counters for his podium and rarely takes questions from the audience, let alone the news media.

Rival aides have used Twitter as a kind of tracking device, privately taking shots at O’Rourke’s thin operation and noting though wry retorts each time he stumbles or borrows a policy or talking point from their candidate.

With O’Rourke unemployed and free to roam the country in his minivan, other campaigns have begun discussing how to maximize their exposure when they travel.

Yet none of the advisers to other Democrats said they’re planning wholesale changes to their approaches, with each insisting they are going to run their own races and one predicting O’Rourke will eventually fade.

As one senior official for a 2020 Democrat put it to POLITICO, “When you’re in a race of 20 people, you can’t change everything for one person.”

“He could still be in Congress, but he quit,” another senior official said of O’Rourke. “He’s decided that this is his big adventure now, and he’s going to do what he’s going to do.”

Eventually, however, some who work for those with day jobs concede, they’ll have to amend their work schedules to accommodate the anticipated faster pace of the campaign.

O’Rourke’s frenetic pace is largely an effort to replicate the closer-than-expected Texas Senate campaign he ran against Ted Cruz, when he visited all 254 counties in the Republican-heavy state.

When asked about his strategy, he says repeatedly, “You’ve got to show up.”

For O’Rourke’s supporters, the candidate’s efforts to get there are half the appeal. When several hundred students awaiting O’Rourke at Keene State College on Tuesday night heard that he would be late, they emitted a low groan, but recovered when organizers told them to turn on Facebook, where O’Rourke was streaming himself live from the car. When he arrived, he lingered long after the event to pose for photographs with anyone who wanted.

But O’Rourke is also attempting in his go-everywhere-fast campaign to establish himself as a course-correction from Hillary Clinton’s losing effort in 2016. Many Democrats remain bitter that Clinton did not campaign at all in Wisconsin in the general election — a critical state ultimately carried by President Donald Trump. Asked recently to assess the Democratic Party’s failure in the last presidential election, O’Rourke said, “You’ve got to show up, and you’ve got to come back.”

Robert Wolf, a venture capitalist who raised money for and advised former President Barack Obama, said, “If someone told me that their first stop was going to be Iowa and their second stop was going to be a road trip through the Blue Wall, considering our last candidate missed badly on the Blue Wall, I would say that’s a pretty thoughtful strategy.”

He said, “From what I am watching and hearing, the excitement around Beto is real and the grass roots following is growing exponentially on each and every stop. We have learned from the past that instead of a candidate who’s behind rope lines all the time, those who are taking selfies, shaking hands and kissing babies draw bigger crowds and support.”

Despite his fundraising and crowd-drawing ability, O’Rourke is still running far behind Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden and about even with Sen. Kamala Harris of California in the latest CNN poll, released Tuesday. O'Rourke will travel to South Carolina after New Hampshire, and he will draw another media convulsion on March 30, when he holds a campaign kickoff in his hometown of El Paso.

In his typical fashion, O’Rourke announced Wednesday that he will not only hold an event in El Paso that day, but also in Houston and Austin.

Still, it is so early in the year that O’Rourke almost certainly cannot maintain the constant crush of media attention that has accompanied his first week. Sitting lawmakers running for president can — and do — drive coverage by introducing bills, and debates starting this summer will offer abundant break-out opportunities. Biden, who is widely expected to run, will likely draw significant attention from O’Rourke following any announcement of a campaign.

Asked if he could maintain his own pace, O’Rourke said, “We’ll see. It is extraordinarily energizing to be doing this … It’s thrilling to me.”

For Jeff Roe, who was Cruz’s chief strategist, O’Rourke’s early run is familiar. He said that if O’Rourke remains tied to the road, it will prevent him from advancing any public storyline other than that he is a road warrior — a narrative that will eventually grow old.

“Coming out of the gate, for the first couple weeks, it’s probably OK,” Roe said. “But this is all he has … he’s in a constant sprint to find himself.”

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