MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Beto O'Rourke wraps up a three-day presidential campaign kickoff tour through eastern Iowa today. The former Texas congressman is bookending the day with a 5K run in North Liberty this morning and a visit to Dubuque tonight. He's been doing mostly meet-and-greets in small venues - coffee shops and bars and community spaces. NPR's Don Gonyea has been squeezing in, and he joins us now. Good morning, Don.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Good morning.
BLOCK: And no surprise to hear that Beto O'Rourke has been addressing the news of the day - the terrorist attacks in New Zealand.
GONYEA: That's right. We were in Mount Pleasant yesterday, first thing, first event. Overnight, we got that horrific news. So O'Rourke began that event by offering sympathy, compassion and prayers. But then after a few minutes, he said that is not enough.
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BETO O'ROURKE: We understand that these acts of hatred and violence against those who may be of 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 mostly he mentioned President Trump's Muslim ban and how that contributes to Islamophobia. So he connected it to the debate here in the U.S.
BLOCK: Don, what else is Beto O'Rourke having to say? What is his basic stump speech? What are the issues that he's stressing?
GONYEA: There's a lot on climate change. He calls it an existential threat to the Earth that America must lead that will be judged by our children on what we do or don't do. He hits hard topics, like voting rights and suppression of votes of minorities and income inequality.
BLOCK: And, Don, what about the audience there in Iowa? How are they receiving Beto O'Rourke, who had huge Democratic support in Texas but not sure how that's playing in Iowa?
GONYEA: Yeah, they packed the venues at all four stops yesterday. The first reaction is always, I like him. Then from many it's I need to learn more about him. And the scrutiny has begun. At every event, it seems you get an audience question like this one.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How do you square your congressional voting record with your claims to be a progressive Democrat? You voted in your three terms to the right of 75 percent of the rest of the caucus.
O'ROURKE: So the question is, can - am I a real Democrat or a real progressive Democrat? I mean, all I can tell you...
GONYEA: So he goes on then and his answer is basically that he was in the minority all six years he was in Congress, in the minority party, so he worked with Republicans to get things done that were important to his constituents. We'll hear more about that.
BLOCK: Well, like all politicians, he talks about running a positive campaign. Is that working for him?
GONYEA: You know, it's the awkward moments on the campaign are when he talks about that. Like, yesterday during a sidewalk scrum with reporters, he was asked, why should people back him and not another Democrat? Somebody said, what if Joe Biden gets in? Why shouldn't they back him? He said I like Joe Biden. Then he said, I don't think of myself in contrast to others. I'm not running in contrast to any other contender or candidate. So we'll see how that works.
BLOCK: And briefly, Don, yesterday, Reuters unearthed some posts that O'Rourke made as a teenager when he was a member of an online group. He wrote fiction and articles on a bulletin board, some of which are misogynistic, some are violent. How has he handled that?
GONYEA: At first, he said he was aware of it, that he couldn't comment. Then he flat out apologized last night at a podcast taping. He said reading it has brought him shame. He said he can't control his past, only his present and his future. And he said he needs to always be aware of that, and he always needs to do better.
BLOCK: OK. NPR's Don Gonyea on the campaign trail with Beto O'Rourke in Iowa. Don, thanks.
GONYEA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.