Former congressman Beto O'Rourke speaks to the crowd during the "March for Truth" in El Paso on Monday. (Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

Beto O’Rourke held a raucous, uplifting rally in El Paso on Monday, reminding his admirers why they were drawn to his message in a razor-close, but ultimately losing Senate race. He had eschewed public events since his defeat. Now the question is: Can he recapture the energy and excitement he generated during his Senate race after other presidential candidates — who may be just as inspirational — have made a splash and begun their campaigns?

The former congressman’s “preseason” presidential campaign had been harshly criticized. He had been slammed by national presidential media for his frivolous car trek, his absence from the tough fights of the day, his lack of response to serious policy questions and his nonchalant attitude toward politics. (He said at one point that he might go teach instead of running for president.)

Local media had been especially tough. The Dallas Morning News reported before the rally:

Whatever he’s been doing — equivocating or deliberating and quietly plotting strategy — the field is growing crowded.

“He may still be considered a rising star but he needs to get on the stick,” said Timothy Hagle, a University of Iowa political scientist and caucus veteran. Harris, he said, shows signs of being “the one” that Democratic elites flock to, leaving others by the wayside.

“Beto O’Rourke may have been the shiny object at one point. But he’s a white guy, and what’s he going to bring to the table, especially in terms of the identity politics that Democrats seem to prefer?” he said.

O’Rourke gave his fans a sneak preview of his political return during a sit-down with Oprah Winfrey last week, but was noncommittal on a presidential run.

Monday seemed to mark a change. O’Rourke once again was the star attraction. Using a border rally to respond to President Trump, he attacked the right’s false claims that El Paso was a crime-ridden disaster until a wall was built. In contrast with Trump’s vision of immigrants as disease-ridden criminals, O’Rourke spoke about our shared humanity.

He certainly spoke with passion, reminding his fans of the power of his soaring rhetoric and his ability to elevate unifying American values above grubby partisan politics. “Walls do not save lives. They end lives,” he told the crowd. His staccato delivery seemed to energize the crowd:

He spoke both in English and Spanish, emphasizing the city’s sense of solidarity and community:

No question that he spoke with excitement and optimism, but should he decide to enter the presidential race, it’s not clear that will be enough. Sure, he drew a big crowd, although not nearly as big as Sen. Kamala D. Harris’s (D-Calif.) rollout in Oakland. Pulling together a crowd on short notice was no easy feat, but not nearly as impressive as getting supporters out in the blizzard-like conditions Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) endured during her announcement on Sunday. O’Rourke is inspirational, but Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) also has been carrying the banner of love and unity. O’Rourke capably describes the chance to recover our deepest-held values and restore the goodness of our country, but Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) also promises “fundamental change” to recapture a good, decent America. O’Rourke praises the spirit of ordinary Americans, but then Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who seems poised to jump into the race, also connects with diverse crowds using the “dignity of work” theme.

So is there room and a distinct audience for O’Rourke? It certainly isn’t “too late” for him to enter the presidential campaign. The primaries are a year away, and he already has demonstrated his impressive fundraising ability. His name ID is already as high as, if not higher than, some announced candidates. However, the challenge for him — now that there are so many other candidates, some who are much more experienced and several just as emotionally compelling — is to answer the Ted Kennedy question: Why does he want to be president? To be blunt, he has to explain what’s so special about Beto O’Rourke.

O’Rourke can pull thousands together on short notice, but he has to date been resistant to “scaling up” his operation and creating a campaign organization that can compete in multiple states. The impromptu feel of his rally, like his Senate campaign stops, can be electrifying, but one wonders whether he understands that there is far more to winning the nomination that high-minded rhetoric.

Should he run for president, O’Rourke would need to show what makes an ex-congressman and defeated Senate candidate uniquely situated to oust Trump, unite a deeply divided country and then govern it. He sounds as though he’s climbing into the ring, so we may have a chance to find out.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Irrelevant and incoherent Trump is upstaged in El Paso

Jennifer Rubin: Beto O’Rourke needs to get off the road

Jennifer Rubin: Is this the beginning for Beto?

Carter Eskew: Preseason is over for Beto O’Rourke

Elizabeth Bruenig: Why this progressive Texan can’t get excited about Beto O’Rourke