The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Beto O’Rourke switches his style and tone as the spotlight dims

Beto O'Rourke and his three children watch as his wife, Amy, speaks as he officially launches his presidential campaign with a rally in El Paso on March 30. (Sergio Flores/for The Washington Post)

As Beto O’Rourke prepared last month to tell the world that he would run for president, Vanity Fair unveiled its April cover featuring the Democrat from El Paso on a dusty road with his pickup truck, his dog and these words: “Man, I’m just born to be in it.”

In the six weeks since O’Rourke got in it, the former congressman has gone from the buzzy celebrity candidate — the one trailed by dozens of journalists, compared to Barack Obama and photographed by Annie Leibovitz — to just another Democrat in a crowded field, struggling to stand out as he adjusts his message of unity to the Democratic electorate’s anger and demands for specifics.

With that magazine still on the racks, O’Rourke is quickly learning that this race is not going to be easy. When he formally kicked off his campaign with a rally in El Paso on March 30, more than 1,000 supporters in all 50 states hosted watch parties. Two Saturdays later, the campaign could get only a third of that number of hosts to organize door-knocking events in their communities.

Over the past weeks, O’Rourke, 46, has subtly adjusted his campaign style and tone in ways that counteract the criticism and mockery he has faced.

He has stopped jumping atop counters and chairs at events, as he did during the early days of his campaign, gestures that inspired the Twitter account @BetoOnThings and some gentle ribbing from fellow presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind. Recently O’Rourke did step onto a small wooden box while speaking to hundreds of University of Virginia students crowded into an atrium, but he decided mid-event to step back down.

After launching his 2020 campaign on March 14, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke has found himself at the center of many newsworthy moments. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

O’Rourke has stopped joking about being an absentee father and regularly acknowledging he has benefited from white male privilege. He has pushed back against assertions that he’s a blank slate who lacks experience and has added a “vision” section to his campaign website that includes many of his broad goals, including establishing a universal health-care system, increasing teacher pay, reducing the cost of higher education, reforming the criminal justice system and combating climate change.

O’Rourke’s handling of many Democratic voters’ needs for a rhetorically different approach has developed in full view. In his 2018 U.S. Senate campaign, O’Rourke favored a sunny, optimistic pitch, only rarely castigating his Republican opponent, Sen. Ted Cruz.

He has tried to stay true to that approach, but he now calls the president “racist” and regularly compares his rhetoric to Hitler’s, an escalation of his prior criticism of Trump and his administration.

He specifically began to take aim at Education Secretary Betsy DeVos after hearing several voters do the same, including a frustrated retired educator in North Carolina who called DeVos “a lunatic.” The crowd, gathered at a pub in Greensboro, laughed and applauded, while one man shouted: “Amen!”

“Well, I would put it differently,” O’Rourke said gently. “But, we’ve got our work cut out for us. Let’s be respectful of everyone.”

At a town hall the next day in Virginia, O’Rourke pledged to protect schools from DeVos, prompting spirited applause. The day after that, he confidently asked a crowd in Fredericksburg, Va.: “Do you all think that we can do better than Betsy DeVos as secretary of education?” The crowd loudly cheered, and O’Rourke said: “I do, too.”

Some of O’Rourke’s supporters are concerned about his newly diminished profile; he is rarely featured on cable news and has yet to do a televised town hall, like the one that gave Buttigieg his breakout moment. When asked about this at a town hall, O’Rourke explained that meeting voters “eyeball to eyeball is so much more satisfying than being on cable TV” but that “at some point, I may have to give in.”

While that sort of national exposure can help with fundraising and growing name recognition, O’Rourke’s campaign is hoping that his time is better spent personally meeting voters, who will then spread the word of his candidacy to their co-workers, relatives and friends. One aide noted that it’s easier to recruit a volunteer who has met the candidate than one who has simply seen him on television.

So far, O’Rourke has done more than 110 events in more than 85 cities and answered more than 635 questions from voters, according to a count kept by his campaign. O’Rourke’s staff has been quick to point out that, unlike some other candidates, he has not yet held a private fundraiser — although that will change on May 13 when he attends his first in New York City and privately meets with donors.

O’Rourke is also rushing to hire more staffers, especially in states with early primaries, something that many other candidates have been working on for months. He launched his campaign without a chief manager and with much of the same skeletal staff that led his 2018 Senate effort. Growing pains have marked its expansion.

There was wide speculation that O’Rourke would hire Becky Bond, a longtime liberal organizer who helped him build a massive grass-roots network in Texas, to run his campaign. Instead, O’Rourke last month hired Jen O’Malley Dillon, who was Barack Obama’s deputy campaign manager in 2012. Bond — along with her associate Zack Malitz, who was O’Rourke’s field director on the Senate race — recently left the campaign.

The campaign has announced state directors in Iowa and South Carolina, and it is expected to soon do so in New Hampshire and Nevada. In Iowa, O’Rourke now has 16 staffers, the Des Moines Register reported Wednesday, which is smaller than many Iowa teams, including that of former congressman John Delaney, who is far less known but has about 25 staffers in Iowa.

Those who worked on O’Rourke’s Senate campaign often think of it in two phases: before and after an August 2018 viral video of him defending football players who kneel during the national anthem to protest racial inequality. Although O’Rourke had already attracted significant national attention, his exposure exploded after that video — as did donations to his campaign — and paved the way to his presidential bid.

That experience has left O’Rourke and his top aides hoping for the same sort of jolt to strike again. He has delivered lengthy, emotional monologues on systemic racism, the real-life consequences of racist rhetoric and the psychological damage done to young migrant children who are separated from their parents.

During a recent town hall in Virginia, an immigrant from El Salvador asked O’Rourke to provide specifics on how he would persuade Congress to grant citizenship to young undocumented immigrants.

O’Rourke answered with the stories of immigrants he has met and how they have improved the communities where they live. He said these “dreamers” should be made citizens as a testament to America’s values and by “finding the common cause with Republicans.”

“Anyway you measure it — in economic growth, in jobs created — immigrants add, they do not take from this economy,” O’Rourke said to cheers. “In the ways that we cannot measure — who we are, our quality of life, the story that we tell ourselves and our kids about what America represents.”

He never got to the specifics. And that particular moment, like so many for O’Rourke recently, has yet to go viral.