BURLINGTON, Iowa — Beto O’Rourke spent the first day of his presidential campaign driving himself from town to town in a Dodge Caravan, ducking into coffee shops and a union hall, bantering earnestly with voters and sometimes jotting notes on what they said.
The day, launched by an early-morning video announcing his candidacy, was an effort to re-create the electricity of his recent run for the Senate, which made him a celebrity even as he narrowly lost. And it kicked off a test of whether the same freewheeling style can work amid the heightened pressures and scrutiny of a presidential campaign.
In this industrial river city, hundreds packed a coffee shop as the former Texas congressman hopped on a counter to call for unity. He spoke in English and Spanish, introducing himself to some who had never heard of him and many who had.
Throughout the day, O’Rourke introduced himself as “Beto from El Paso,” took questions and began collecting stories that he built into a campaign-speech-in-the-making, modifying it from stop to stop to mention those he had just met.
“I don’t think there has ever been a greater moment in our lifetimes and for this country,” O’Rourke said, maneuvering around a chandelier from his countertop perch. “The challenges have never been greater, more severe, more critical and more defining for the future.”
Less than two years ago, O’Rourke was a relatively unknown lawmaker, but his energetic challenge to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz attracted a national following.
When O’Rourke released his video Thursday morning to announced his run, it followed months of public reflection that included a solo road trip through rural America, a heart-to-heart talk with Oprah Winfrey and a rally with supporters near the southern border.
In the video, O’Rourke promised to run a “a positive campaign . . . to bring out the very best in every single one of us,” sticking to the upbeat tone he used in his Senate race, one that contrasts with some of his rivals’ more aggressive messages.
He listed some of the perils he said face the United States.
“The challenges that we face right now — the interconnected crises in our economy, our democracy and our climate — have never been greater,” O’Rourke said. “And they will either consume us or they will afford us the greatest opportunity to unleash the genius of the United States of America.”
President Trump responded to O’Rourke’s announcement by joking about his pronounced gestures.
“I think he’s got a lot of hand movement,” Trump said when asked about his newest would-be challenger. “I said, ‘Is he crazy, or is that just the way he acts?’ ”
He declined to say who would make a stronger opponent, O’Rourke or former vice president Joe Biden, who is mulling a 2020 bid. “Whoever it is, I’ll take him or her on,” Trump said.
O’Rourke’s decision added another unpredictable element to an already sprawling Democratic primary contest. The Texan has shown he can generate attention and excitement, and his candidacy may appeal to centrists in a primary whose prominent figures so far have leaned left.
But O’Rourke is untested on the national stage and brings to the race little in the way of accomplishments during his three House terms. His policy positions are also less developed that those of some of the other hopefuls.
O’Rourke said he plans to travel the country in the days ahead and will host a more official kickoff event in El Paso on March 30.
O’Rourke won national attention in 2017 when he and Texas Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican, drove 1,600 miles from Texas to Washington after a winter storm grounded flights. Hundreds of thousands of people watched a Facebook video live stream of their “bipartisan road trip,” a reminder of the days when politics wasn’t quite so bitter. Thursday marked the second anniversary of the start of that trip.
Two weeks later, O’Rourke announced his Senate run, seeking to appeal not just to liberals living in Texas’s biggest cities but also to conservatives and independents, including those in rural areas.
O’Rourke, 46, was elected to the El Paso City Council in 2005, focusing on redeveloping the city’s downtown and improving public transportation. He co-authored a book about drug trafficking and called for legalizing marijuana as a way to lessen the power of the Mexican drug cartels.
In 2012, he defeated a longtime Democratic congressman by, in his own telling, knocking on as many doors as possible and talking to everyone he could.
In the Senate contest, Cruz and his allies tried to paint O’Rourke as a young, inexperienced slacker, and some of those attacks are already being repeated. A day before O’Rourke’s announcement, the conservative Club for Growth released an ad focusing on his family’s wealth and accusing him of being “entitled.”
O’Rourke said he plans to model his presidential campaign after his Senate race, when he visited all of Texas’s 254 counties, often driving himself from event to event.
Along the way, O’Rourke posted hours of video on Facebook, allowing followers to listen to his speeches, ask questions and watch him order Whataburgers. Hundreds of Texans often showed up to O’Rourke’s campaign events.
O’Rourke has called for a ban on the sale of assault rifles, creating a public option for health insurance, and providing a pathway to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants, along with promising to vote to impeach Trump.
But he routinely criticized Democratic leaders and distanced himself from political labels. He discouraged political action committees from getting involved with the race, raising more than $80 million, much of it in small donations — a record for a Senate candidate. About a month before the election, O’Rourke held a free concert in Austin with country music legend Willie Nelson that attracted 55,000 people, eclipsing the number of people Trump has attracted to his campaign rallies.
His close loss was devastating for O’Rourke, and soon after, he took a solo road trip through New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas, chatting with people along the way and recording his observations in poetic blog posts while contemplating his next step.
In February, O’Rourke received an organizing opportunity when Trump held a campaign rally in El Paso. In a speech to thousands at a counter-demonstration, O’Rourke cast the immigration debate as a test of the nation’s core values. The crowd chanted his name, reporters clamored for his thoughts, and O’Rourke bounced with excitement.
O’Rourke dragged out his deliberations for another month, dropping vague hints about his thought process. Finally, on Thursday morning, he shared his decision through the video.
The first day of his presidential run was in many ways an extension of the Senate race. He began at a small coffee shop in Keokuk, a community that Trump won in 2016, telling the crowd that his wife, Amy, was back in Texas, “where she is raising, sometimes with my help” their three children.
“She’s getting them ready, feeding them, and then taking them to school,” O’Rourke said. “I — even though this is the first day — miss them terribly. But I’ll tell you this: It’s those kids, and it’s your kids, and it’s your grandkids and the generations that follow, that push us out into the country to do this incredibly important work together.”
He toured a local high school, asking students for advice and taking out a notebook to record thoughts from the welding teacher.
Throughout the day, O’Rourke focused heavily on climate change, health care and education. But he remained noncommittal on several hot-button issues.
He said he likes the Green New Deal, for example, but didn’t fully sign onto it. He expressed interest in proposals to add more Supreme Court justices, or limit their terms, saying it was “an idea we should explore.”
When a student at a sub sandwich shop asked about his short political résumé, O'Rourke cited the town hall meetings he held as a congressman and his time on the El Paso City Council.
“I may not have served forever . . . but I have served in different ways,” he said.
Then he steered the conversation back to his favorite theme — unity.
“We need to come together, damn the differences,” he said, “and get it done.”
Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.