MILWAUKEE — A more disciplined candidate might not have been so sloppy, with months to prepare and adoring crowds waiting.
Yet there was Beto O’Rourke, wobbling on policy, offending women with a joke about child care, frustrating local Democrats with his high-handedness and picking bewildering fights with the press.
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Four days into his presidential campaign, O’Rourke’s supporters are still stuffing themselves into coffee shops and living rooms across the Midwest to see the Democratic sensation as he motors east from Iowa to New Hampshire in a Dodge Grand Caravan. And O’Rourke by the weekend was moving deliberately to speak more specifically about policy, to hold more organized events and to mend his relationship with the media.
But for all the charisma and fundraising that could carry him far into the Democratic primary, a series of missteps in his campaign’s earliest days served as a reminder of how uncertain a prospect his star remains.
“For all the fanfare, the band was playing a pretty flat tune,” Dave Nagle, a former congressman and Iowa state Democratic Party chairman, said after watching O’Rourke address a large rally from the bed of a red Ford Ranger in Waterloo, Iowa. “There’s just no substance to it.”
O’Rourke’s liabilities began showing soon after he arrived in Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state. On Friday, the second day of his campaign, the former Texas congressman was forced to apologize for what he called “really hateful” writings from his youth, after a fictional post he wrote as a teenager about murdering children surfaced.
Hours later, O’Rourke was apologizing for ham-handedly joking about his wife, Amy, raising their children “sometimes with my help.”
Only after it was pointed out to him that such a comment could reinforce painful gender stereotypes did he say he would not make that joke again. He promised to be “much more thoughtful going forward in the way that I talk about our marriage, and also the way in which I acknowledge the truth of the criticism that I have enjoyed white privilege.”
In later campaign appearances, he had replaced the joke with a more agreeable line: “Amy and I are raising three amazing kids.”
Yet he was still confronting past comments as recently as Sunday — after drawing criticism for remarks printed on the cover of Vanity Fair in which O’Rourke said before entering the race that he was “just born to be in it.”
“I saw the cover with that quote, ‘Born to run,’ or ‘Born to do this,’ and I was like, ‘Man, I hope I didn’t say that,’” O’Rourke told reporters in Wisconsin on Sunday. “I think the context of that, which makes sense, is the way that I feel, is that I’m born to serve, I’m born to try to help bring people together.”
He added: “I don’t know that anyone is born for an office or a position, and I certainly am not. But I do think that I find my purpose and function in life in doing this kind of work.”
It was not a clean start to O’Rourke’s 2020 run. Though he benefited from nonstop media coverage and his own political acuity — thrilling crowds by addressing them from café countertops and delivering a passionate, widely viewed response to the mass shooting in New Zealand last week — O’Rourke’s opening act also laid bare disorder in his campaign.
On the eve of his campaign announcement, O’Rourke personally apologized to a prominent Democrat in Iowa for his campaign’s lack of organization there, attributing it to late decision-making and a skeletal staff, according to a source familiar with the conversation. Hosts of multiple events in Iowa said they were informed unusually late about logistics, especially given the large crowd sizes O’Rourke could command. And with O’Rourke’s small staff focused intently on Iowa, Democratic activists in at least two other states, including New Hampshire, said calls they were told to expect from the campaign never came.
O’Rourke, unlike other major candidates, declined to immediately reveal his initial fundraising figures — despite telling donors in a solicitation that “what we raise in the first 24 hours will set the tone in the national conversation about the viability of our campaign.”
He told reporters in Milwaukee on Sunday that “I hope to be able to share soon how much we have raised thus far,” but adding that “I don’t have a day in mind.”
O’Rourke still does not have a campaign manager, though he said he was in talks with a potential manager about the job. He said he was working with an “extraordinary team right now.”
Operational shortcomings are not uncommon in early presidential campaigns and can be overcome. Norm Sterzenbach, a former executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party and a highly respected strategist in Iowa, is helping O’Rourke in the state. An advance staff is already in place.
“So [O’Rourke] made some missteps,” said one Democratic strategist unaffiliated with O’Rourke’s early campaign. “What really matters is when are you putting people on the ground and giving Norm some money to go hire them.”
Referring to Sterzenbach and Paul Tewes, who ran President Barack Obama’s 2008 operation in Iowa and who has also advised O’Rourke, the strategist said: “You got Norm, you got Paul Tewes. You can right that ship in less than two weeks. … Does he have to get a manager? Yes. Does he have a grace period of about two weeks? Yes.”
But then there was the matter of the candidate himself. After announcing his candidacy last week, O’Rourke put up a new website featuring a product store with “Beto” hats and tote bags for sale. But there was no information about his positions on issues, and when he arrived in the Midwest, he faced persistent criticism that on policy he lacked clear ideas.
Multiple times in Iowa, O’Rourke answered questions about policy proposals by addressing what he called “the spirit” of the question.
Asked about international intellectual property, O’Rourke said it was the president’s role to “show leadership” but that he “would look to you and to others to help describe what that looks like, whether it’s legislation, whether it’s leadership from the White House negotiating these trade relationships.”
Human trafficking? O’Rourke mentioned the importance of funding for training and law enforcement, but he said, “I want to make sure that we listen to the local communities as they show us” how to address the issue.
O’Rourke said that he had no plans to hold high-dollar fundraisers but that he would not rule them out.
And when he was asked about a proposal to expand the number of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, O’Rourke said, “Given the fact that we are at one of the most dysfunctional points in U.S. governmental history, I think it calls upon us to be creative about what some of the solutions are.”
“I think this conversation should certainly happen,” he said.
Even when it came to what separates him from other candidates, he demurred.
“I don’t know how to compare or contrast myself to other candidates,” O’Rourke said at one event. “All I can tell you is who I am.”
Before an appearance by O’Rourke in Henry County, Iowa, Jeff Fager, chairman of the county Democratic Party, said he wasn’t sure what to make of O’Rourke’s answers.
“Either he’s being sensitive and trying to be representative of the people — that’s sort of the better spin on it,” Fager said. “Critics might say he doesn’t have his own ideas.”
O’Rourke maintained he had “given very specific answers” on questions about immigration and criminal justice reform, among other issues. He supports legalizing marijuana, abortion rights and a $15 hourly minimum wage within six years. His progressive views on immigration remain unchanged.
But he also began working to sharpen his responses to policy questions, especially on health care. Confronted by a man in Independence, Iowa, on the topic, O’Rourke responded by praising a “Medicare for America” bill that he said “responds to the fact that so many Americans have said, ‘I like my employer-based insurance.’”
“It complements what already exists with the need that we have for the millions of Americans who do not have insurance and ensures that each of them can enroll in Medicare,” he said. “For me, that affords us the greatest buy-in from the greatest number of Americans.”
By the time he arrived in Madison, Wis., on Sunday for the continuation of his tour, O’Rourke was beginning to point more forcefully to specific legislation he supported, including around campaign finance, Social Security and gun control.
Several hundred people cheered him at a coffee shop and in the spillover on the sidewalk in the college town.
And the media was there to see the exchange — after O’Rourke infuriated network and print reporters at the start of the campaign. His staff initially refused to provide basic information to many outlets about events, and they told some reporters that events were closed to the press — or forced them to leave — while allowing others in.
The campaign left a crush of press in the dark even about O’Rourke’s first stop in Iowa — the first public appearance of his campaign.
On Friday, O’Rourke said of his media relations strategy that he had been “pretty open and pretty available,” after refusing moments earlier to answer a question about reparations for black Americans. Nor did he respond to a question about his operation’s similarities to President Donald Trump’s widely criticized practice of excluding reporters from certain events.
But by Friday night, O’Rourke and his staff had begun taking incremental steps to mend fences with the press. At the taping of a podcast in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, O’Rourke called the press “the best defense against tyranny.” And the next morning, he told reporters, “I’m trying to do a better job of staying around to answer questions from the press.”
The next day, O’Rourke answered several minutes of questions from reporters in Madison.
He then left for Milwaukee, where he held the first scheduled — not impromptu — availability of the campaign. He took questions on everything from climate change to the Republican Party’s latest attacks on him to how he manages parenting from the road. The campaign provided basic logistical information to reporters. And even when he declined to answer a question — refusing to say how much money he has raised — he did so with a newfound lightheartedness as the campaign begins to hit a smoother stride.
“I’m sorry that I can’t give you,” he said, before stopping himself, acknowledging a previous exchange with reporters in which he had been told he could disclose how much money he had raised, but was electing not to.
Correcting himself, he said, “I’m sorry that I choose not to give you a clearer answer.”