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Beto’s Bet on Iowa

The candidate who graced the cover of "Vanity Fair" settles in for a long tour of retail politicking.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Near dusk on a muggy Saturday night in Cedar Rapids, more than 80 Iowans stood patiently in a slow-moving line in the parking lot of a strip mall near downtown. The attraction: the chance to question or take selfies with Beto O’Rourke, dressed in an open-neck blue shirt and gray pants.

Those in line at the opening of O’Rourke’s local headquarters ranged from retired nurse Connie McCall (“Beto really relates. He looks right at you”) to trucking executive Lance Voutrobek (“I like his appeal to the centrist, more moderate group, instead of the far left”).  

At the same time almost to the minute, The Des Moines Register was releasing its Iowa Poll of likely caucus-goers that showed O’Rourke—once a darling of the political handicappers—with dismal 2-percent support. Sunday morning that minuscule poll number led George Stephanopoulos’s ABC interview with O’Rourke.  

In covering presidential politics, there are moments when you have to choose between the polls and what you see with your own eyes. After following O’Rourke for most of two days, I am going with my instincts: The solid, attentive crowds of more than a hundred that he attracted for Friday town meetings in smaller southern Iowa towns like Ottumwa and Knoxville don’t seem like a short-lived mirage to me. Nearly eight months before the opening-gun caucuses, his presidential campaign just doesn’t feel like a futile gesture by an also-ran who instead should be running for the Senate from Texas.  

O’Rourke is willing to admit that he has stumbled out of the starting gate, telling me, “I think I could have gotten off on a better foot, for sure.”

At a Saturday morning house party in Des Moines for Pete Buttigieg—the Democratic heartthrob of the moment—Patsy Mattas, a retired college administrator, explained why she has ruled out O’Rouke. “I was put off by his coverage,” she said, “especially the words on the Vanity Fair cover.”

When a three-month-old magazine cover is mentioned out of the blue as a near-disqualification for a candidate, it says something about the self-destructive power of the words. The quotation in question made O’Rourke appear almost messianic in his inflated sense of himself: “I want to be in it. Man, I’m just born to be in it.” 

The Vanity Fair cover was part of a larger perception that O’Rourke’s presidential campaign was built around little more than skateboarding and live-streaming his visit to his dentist hygienist. I will confess that before I saw him in Iowa, I also had the impression that he could never surmount the gravitas gap facing a candidate more famous for his time in a failed punk-rock band than his policy proposals. 

But the danger of clichés in politics is that they prevent you from ever looking beyond them. Certainly, there was nothing flashy about O’Rourke’s visit Friday morning to Matt Russell’s small 110-acre farm in Lacona. Farm visits are, of course, an Iowa political necessity, but O’Rourke, walking through a thigh-high hay field, displayed a seemingly genuine curiosity (even though I can’t prove it with a pithy quote) that went beyond the ritual blather of a listening tour.

And farm tours bring with them their own tiny risks. At one point, O’Rourke bent down to pat the head of a black dog, only to be rewarded with a menacing growl and a loud bark.

Later that day at a town meeting in Knoxville, O’Rourke was introduced by Ann Fields, who chairs the Monroe County Democratic Party. Using a line that she innocently lifted from an article in Vox, Fields described the candidate as “a blank slate that is waiting to be filled by our hopes and dreams.”

Even though Fields inadvertently fostered the impression that O’Rourke is a lightweight, some of his answers at that same town meeting displayed far more substance than his toothy image might suggest. 

Asked about war powers, for example, Beto launched into a passionate attack on the twenty-first-century tradition of endless American wars with scant congressional involvement. “The last time that we lawfully declared war was in World War II,” he said. “We have been passing these authorizations for the use of military force.... When it comes to Congress, we have been at war on autopilot. It was 18 years ago that we debated an authorization that has us in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and other countries.”

Normally, the lead of this piece would be built around the 15-minute, worldwide exclusive interview that I conducted with Beto Saturday night in his near-empty campaign headquarters, after the last supporter had gone home. As we sat on facing folding chairs—maintaining the kind of mutual eye contact of eleven-year-olds in a staring contest—I tried to gauge the depths of his understanding of what it takes to be a successful Democratic president. This is an especially critical job requirement for any successful candidate following Donald Trump and his determined efforts to poison the well waters of democracy. 

The difficulty at this stage of the campaign is to lure candidates away from their stump speeches and the talking points they cling to like a security blanket. With O’Rourke, I confess, I was less than completely successful. And sure enough, I heard many of the same prepackaged phrases from him on ABC on Sunday morning.

My interview highlighted the degree to which O’Rourke sees himself as a movement politician—not in a Bernie Sanders ideological sense but rather in terms of building coalitions. “I want to be that kind of president who goes to the places that have been forgotten or written off, who doesn’t just show up during a campaign year or an election,” he said, in a very faint echo of Bobby Kennedy a half-century ago. “I want to show up once in office to build the constituency and the movement to produce the change that we’re going to need in this country.” 

Even though O’Rourke has been tacking left on issues like the death penalty (which he now opposes), he still clings to the belief that forging alliances with Republicans of good will represents good politics rather than heresy. Asked about how this strategy might shape his presidency, O’Rourke said, “It has to be done not just with Democrats, but, where possible, with Republicans. In my six years in the minority, I was able to establish that [there] is a way to work with Republicans to serve the common interest of this country.”

One of the more intriguing aspects of the Democratic race has become the interlinked fortunes of O’Rourke and Buttigieg—the two leading candidates with atypical political resumés. Both O’Rourke (a congressman turned failed Senate candidate) and Buttigieg (the mayor of a city smaller than Cedar Rapids) can be seen as the voice of a coming generation.

But there are also differences, beyond to whom they are married. Beto at 46, with tiny flecks of gray in his hair, would be older than both Bill Clinton and John Kennedy when they were inaugurated as president. Buttigieg would be the youngest occupant of the Oval Office in history. 

O’Rourke is also running a much more traditional Iowa campaign with a strong presence on the ground, probably only eclipsed by Elizabeth Warren’s efforts. Buttigieg, in contrast, is still being powered by his own charisma and charm. Saturday afternoon, for example, Buttigieg and Kamala Harris were the only major candidates without staffers or volunteers visible at the Story County Democratic picnic in Ames, which attracted 250 likely caucus-goers.

Of course, organization alone only helps those candidates with a strong message and support. Beto O’Rourke will never be an Elizabeth Warren, running on the heft of detailed policy proposals. But if he finds the right message and tone, he boasts the natural political talents that could allow him to his overcome his now-anemic polling numbers—in Iowa and beyond.