CEDAR FALLS — Beto O’Rourke’s jam-packed first trip to Iowa left the native Texan barely a second to breathe — literally.
While running in a Saint Patrick’s Day-themed 5-kilometer race in North Liberty, O’Rourke discussed health care policy with a surgeon who joined him for the jog.
“And I crossed the finish line and I’m trying to catch my breath, and there’s a circle of about 30 people who are waiting for me,” O’Rourke said in an interview with the Des Moines Register on Saturday afternoon. “And they’re asking me really involved, detailed questions on Citizens United, on health care, on public education, and it sounds strange, but I loved that. I loved that everyone is so engaged and so focused on making sure that this country does better that they don’t want to lose a second.”
O’Rourke didn’t lose a second, either. The new 2020 contender maintained a demanding itinerary, driving himself in a rented minivan across 13 Iowa counties to attend the 18 events crammed into his three-day tour.
The trip took him to coffee shops, where he hopped onto counters and energetically shouted his message to crowds that occasionally spilled out of the doorways. It took him to a quiet living room in Fairfield, where he joined a few dozen Iowans in removing his shoes to discuss politics in sock-clad feet. It took him to a Casey’s General Store, where he got his first taste of the gas station’s famed breakfast pizza (and learned why Iowans can’t get enough of the stuff).
And he felt “in every way possible” an immediate and intense scrutiny that far surpassed what he experienced as a Texas Senate candidate in 2018, he told the Register.
“The number of national media at every stop, the constant questions, the intensity of the pace — it’s absolutely relentless,” O’Rourke said while pausing for coffee after door-knocking in the state Senate special election and before holding a meet-and-greet in Independence. “It is impossible for me to believe that we’ve only been doing that for two-and-a-half days. It feels much, much, much longer.”
Not the polling leader but highly watched
O’Rourke enters the race far from a frontrunner. A recent Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll of likely Democratic caucusgoers showed him 22 points behind the current leader, former vice president Joe Biden.
But his viral rise has captured the attention of Democrats and those across the country. It’s also sparked a national media following that made it difficult to hold the types of small, intimate events for which the campaign had prepared.
As a couple dozen reporters filled Randy Naber’s small Muscatine living room Thursday night, he continued to offer food and beverages to the incoming strangers. But he also fretted that “this was more media than I was expecting.”
In Fairfield on Friday afternoon, Debi Plum had planned to host 20 or so friends to see O’Rourke. When she saw her home’s address broadcast on the evening news the night before, she knew it would be a larger affair.
“This was going to be a private event with no press and just a small group,” she said laughing as about 50 people and several reporters filed out her front door at the conclusion of the event. “It kind of grew. Kind of a lot.”
Many of the Iowans who attended the events throughout the weekend had followed his meteoric rise, saying they’re fans who were eager to see him enter the race.
“I’ve been hoping he would come for a long time,” said Becky Frueh, a 56-year-old Ottumwa resident who watched his unsuccessful Texas Senate run against Republican incumbent Ted Cruz. “I just feel like he connected with people.”
But just as many said they came to hear O’Rourke speak out of curiosity as they weigh a still-growing and diverse field.
“There are so many. I need to know a lot more about some of the other candidates,” said Beth Parker, a 65-year-old Cedar Rapids resident who listened to O’Rourke record a live podcast there. “But, obviously, he’s got a lot of appeal. He’s just right there in your face with honesty. He’s real. He’s a real person.”
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Personality, energy at the forefront
O’Rourke attempted to highlight his personality throughout the weekend, making unannounced stops in a local record store and skate shop in Cedar Rapids and running in the Saint Patrick’s Day race. He placed third in his age group and followed up the run with Casey’s breakfast pizza, he said, gushing over its perfection.
“I was told by someone on our campaign that I would have to do this so that I could say that I did it. You know, check the box,” O’Rourke said. “And so I went in, you know, not sure that this was going to be such a great idea — and I loved it. It was so good. And maybe it was because I had just finished the run, but the cheese, the eggs, all the toppings, the crust, the greasiness of it — it just felt so good. And I think it was exactly what my body needed to get back to where it needed to be.”
At nearly every event, O’Rourke spoke for fewer than 10 minutes before turning to questions from the gathered crowds.
He was energetic and remained perpetually in motion — gesticulating animatedly and prompting one Iowan to compliment his wild hand movements, which President Donald Trump had criticized earlier in the day. He spoke quickly and after answering one question turned almost immediately to the next, barely pausing for applause.
At each stop, O’Rourke highlighted the need to bring the country together and to work across the aisle to get things done. In identifying a progressive hero on the stump, he repeatedly cited Republican President Theodore Roosevelt.
“We have to make sure that everyone’s voice is included, regardless of the differences,” he told reporters, responding to a question about whether Democrats can maintain their “progressive” bona fides while advocating compromise with Republicans. “Those are unimportant in the face of the challenges that we have right now. So if that doesn’t put me somewhere convenient on the political spectrum, so be it. That can’t be what this is about.”
At an event in Mount Pleasant, one attendee asked O’Rourke whether he’s a socialist or a capitalist.
“I think the only way to meet some of these historic challenges is to be able to use this engine of capitalism,” he responded. “It won’t be government intervention or policy alone that makes it possible. Now, having said that, it is clearly an imperfect, unfair, unjust and racist capitalist economy. … I’m a capitalist. But I think there’s a lot more we’ve got to do to make sure that this capitalism is just.”
Questions remain on policy positions
On policy, O’Rourke tended to speak broadly about the problems facing the country, though he sometimes failed to specifically answer Iowans’ questions.
In Muscatine, one Iowan asked him about whether he supports the U.S. government paying reparations to African-Americans following decades of slavery. He spoke eloquently about the nation’s history of slavery and the “systemic racism” that still exists. But he ultimately did not answer the question directly, saying only that it’s a conversation that must be had and one that should begin at the community level.
O’Rourke has been similarly difficult to pin down on issues like Medicare-for-all, appearing to reverse past statements. In 2017, for example, O’Rourke wrote in a Facebook post that “a single-payer Medicare-for-all program is the best way to ensure all Americans get the healthcare they need.”
On Friday, he told reporters outside a Washington, Iowa, coffee shop that “I’m no longer sure that’s the fastest way for us to get there.”
He said his goal is not to ultimately reach a single-payer system like Medicare-for-all but instead “to get to guaranteed high quality, universal health care for all. And I think there are many ways to get there.”
Asked whether the criticism about his lack of specifics is fair, O’Rourke told the Register it’s his family’s policy “never to criticize the referees.”
“Whether you think that was a bad call or not, you just have to do your best, regardless,” he said. “And I feel like I need to follow my own advice in this: It’s not up to me to decide what’s fair or not fair in terms of the criticism; it’s just up to me to do my best.”
Still, he said he believes he has been specific on a range of issues.
“The opinion that I respect most is that of the voter,” he said. “And this is my impression, and it is only my impression, but in the events that we have had so far — the house parties, the town halls, the coffee shops — I get the sense that people are satisfied with the answers that I have given — that I have defined the challenge, outlined the solution and left open the room to bring as many people together around that as possible so that once in office, we can hit the ground running.”
O’Rourke held several other events Saturday and capped the weekend with a house party in Dubuque. He plans to campaign next in Ohio and Wisconsin. He told the Register he hopes to keep up the intensity.
“It’s the only gear that I have,” he said.