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Politics & Government

Former Texas Rep. O'Rourke Kicks Off Presidential Run In Iowa


Former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke lost a Senate race in 2018. So what makes him think that he can win a presidential race? One reason surely is that O'Rourke gained such widespread support for his challenge to Senator Ted Cruz last year and now has many contributors. His campaign claims that O'Rourke raised $6.1 million in the first 24 hours after he made his run official. He's now been visiting Iowa. And NPR's Don Gonyea has been watching Beto O'Rourke run - literally.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Beto O'Rourke's Texas Senate campaign featured concerts with Willie Nelson, lengthy livestreams on social media and more. Now he's picking up where he left off while looking for an even bigger job.



GONYEA: That's O'Rourke finishing a 5K run in North Liberty, Iowa, Saturday. Temperatures were in the 20s. Even so, still sweaty from the run, he held a long meet and greet in the cold with other runners and spectators.


BETO O'ROURKE: Anywhere - there's a question back here about Citizens United.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Get big money out of health care and lobbyists out of Washington. We need big money out of Washington.

O'ROURKE: I agree with you. So not only do we not take any PAC money at all from anyone, not only do we not take any...

GONYEA: The night before, there was a live taping of an Iowa political podcast in Cedar Rapids. The candidate arrived carrying just-purchased used vinyl record albums for the hosts.


O'ROURKE: The first one is Santana III. I don't know if anybody...


O'ROURKE: ...Owns this record, but it's a beautiful album cover.

GONYEA: But the discussion also turned to the two times O'Rourke was arrested as a young man - once for trespassing, once for driving while intoxicated. He says those mistakes didn't define him or narrow his life options because...


O'ROURKE: The truth of the criticism that I have enjoyed white privilege - absolutely, undeniable.

GONYEA: In Iowa, in the hours before another campaign event, news broke of the deadly terror attacks in New Zealand. O'Rourke said prayers and compassion are not enough.


O'ROURKE: We understand that these acts of hatred and violence against those who maybe have a different religion in the majority in a given country are on the rise. They're on the rise around the Western world. They're on the rise right here in this country.

GONYEA: And he cited President Trump's own Muslim travel ban as feeding Islamophobia in the U.S. But voters are also trying to get a handle on O'Rourke's own ideology. They ask him if he's a progressive. He responds that he doesn't like labels. He also says he won't disparage his rivals, starting now with the Democrats running for the nomination. But explaining to reporters how he'll differentiate himself brings an awkward answer.


O'ROURKE: I don't think of myself in contrast to others. I'm not running, you know, in contrast to any other contender or potential contender. I'm running for all the reasons that I shared in there.

GONYEA: And he's still figuring out how to do this. There's one area where he's already learned a lesson. In his first days in Iowa, he'd joke about how his wife Amy was back home in Texas raising the family, sometimes with help from him. The negative reaction on Twitter came fast. Suddenly, he says, the joke's been cut.


O'ROURKE: It's absolutely valid criticism, and it's constructive criticism. It has already made me a better candidate.

GONYEA: Then yesterday in Wisconsin, a complaint from a voter that O'Rourke swears too much, including the F-word, sometimes in front of his kids. That, too, he said, ends now. It's the education of a candidate in real time, just days into a presidential run. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Des Moines.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.