BY Patrick Svitek
EL PASO — Beto O’Rourke could be a presidential candidate days from now — or not.
O’Rourke kept the political world on the edge of its seat Tuesday with his latest outing, an appearance at Fort Bliss here to accept the El Pasoan of the Year award from the local publication El Paso Inc. Speaking with reporters afterward, he reiterated he is hoping to decide on 2020 by the end of the month — nine days away — and continued to not rule out going a different route, including running for U.S. Senate again.
“I’m trying to figure out how I can best serve this country, where I can do the greatest good for the United States of America, so yeah, I’m thinking through that and it, you know, may involve running for the presidency, it may involve something else,” O’Rourke said.
He repeatedly expressed hope he could reach a decision by Feb. 28 but noted he would not be “limited by the end of this month.” And he indicated he has not given much thought to how he would announce his decision — or what a White House bid would look like compared to his previous campaigns.
The comments contributed to a lingering suspense about O’Rourke’s 2020 plans, even as allies and supporters are increasingly optimistic he will run for president. They have been encouraged by his recent re-emergence in the national spotlight, which began in earnest with a Feb. 5 interview with Oprah in which he first offered his timetable for a 2020 decision. The interview aired Saturday on TV.
“We think things are certainly looking good,” said Michael Soneff, a Democratic consultant in California working for one of the groups trying to draft O’Rourke into the 2020 race. Soneff added that he was still willing to give O’Rourke time and space to make a decision with which he is fully comfortable. “The more that this process reflects what he actually feels is the better,” Soneff said.
Still, the White House race is rapidly taking shape, and the latest reminder came hours before O’Rourke’s appearance, when U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., announced he was running for president again. That leaves O’Rourke and former Vice President Joe Biden among the potentially top-tier candidates who have not yet made up their minds about 2020.
Iowa Democratic strategist Jeff Link said he “absolutely” still sees an opening for O’Rourke in the race, but noted, “If you’re not already in and you’re still thinking about it … once Biden makes a decision, that’s going to start tipping a lot of dominoes.”
Since the Oprah interview, O’Rourke has had little problem with at least staying in headlines. He had a starring role in his hometown’s response last week to a visit by President Donald Trump — a moment O’Rourke singled out Tuesday as perhaps his proudest as an El Pasoan. And in the days after Trump’s trip, O’Rourke vaulted back into the national spotlight with an MSNBC interview in which he said he would “absolutely” take down El Paso’s border wall if he could. That prompted a torrent of Republican criticism and led his fellow Democrats who are already 2020 candidates to face the same question.
During his Tuesday appearance — which the Republican National Committee bracketed with a statement deriding O’Rourke as “No Borders Beto” — O’Rourke made clear that his comment applied specifically to the El Paso wall.
“I think there is a role for physical barriers in some places,” O’Rourke said, noting he was specifically referring to the El Paso wall because crime data suggests the city did not become safer as a result of it. On border barriers elsewhere, O’Rourke said he “would work with local stakeholders, the property owners, the communities, those who actually live there, to determine the best security solution.”
O’Rourke kept up his profile over the weekend, visiting Chicago and Wisconsin, a state that Democrats notoriously lost in 2016 after presidential nominee Hillary Clinton did not campaign there during the general election. Asked Friday in Milwaukee if the state was overlooked in 2016, O’Rourke told reporters, “It sure seems that way.”
“It is clear to me that all our communities need to be listened to, heard and understood, regardless of their importance to the Electoral College or anyone’s political prospects or the next election,” said O’Rourke, who visited all 254 Texas counties in his Senate campaign. “When we fail to show up, we get what we deserve.”
It was also on the Wisconsin trip that O’Rourke grappled with an issue that he’ll only hear more of if he runs for president: his less-than-clear-cut political identity in an increasingly progressive Democratic Party. Fielding questions from students at the University of Wisconsion-Madison, O’Rourke emphasized his long-running aversion to political labels as he referenced the different kinds of scrutiny his record has received as a statewide candidate in Texas versus a potential presidential contender.
“In Texas, Ted Cruz called me a socialist. I’m too liberal for Texas,” O’Rourke said. “Outside of Texas, people say, ‘Is he really a Democrat? I think he’s a closet Republican.’ I don’t know where I am on a spectrum and I almost could care less. I just want to get to better things for this country.”
One specific label that O’Rourke has eschewed in recent days: socialist. In Wisconsin and El Paso, O’Rourke declared himself a capitalist when confronted with questions about the rise of democratic socialism, the ideology held by rising-star U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., as well as Sanders. Addressing the topic in El Paso, O’Rourke told reporters he does not “see how we’re able to meet any of the fundamental challenges we have as a country without in part harnessing the power of the market.”
O’Rourke has nonetheless praised Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders, whose entrance into the 2020 race O’Rourke cheered on Tuesday. O’Rourke — a late and arguably reluctant endorser of Sanders’ 2016 primary rival, Hillary Clinton — told reporters the Vermont senator “added so much to the national conversation” on issues like health care and campaign finance, and that it’s “healthy for democracy” for people like Sanders to run. As for Ocasio-Cortez, O’Rourke continued to speak positively about her Green New Deal while in Wisconsin, though he suggested the proposal be more narrowly tailored to focus on climate change.
Back in El Paso on Tuesday, O’Rourke found himself in less politically charged territory as he accepted the El Pasoan of the Year award, extolling the city for giving him opportunities in business after college and then public service. The impassioned speech was not without potential 2020 undertones, as O’Rourke hailed El Paso’s response to Trump’s visit, lamented that the country is more divided than it has ever been and predicted that “El Paso, more than any other community in this country, can meet the challenge of this moment.”
El Paso Inc. hands out the award every year, but there was a ubiquitous sense inside the Centennial Banquet and Conference Center on Tuesday that this time was different. Speaker after speaker heaped praise on O’Rourke as a political phenom, and before he took the stage, the audience was shown two videos congratulating him on the award. One was from U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., a close friend of O’Rourke who has already endorsed home-state senator Elizabeth Warren for president. The other was from U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, who O’Rourke opposed for minority leader in 2016.
Opening his speech, O’Rourke thanked his fellow Democrats for the two videos — and seemed particularly surprised by Pelosi’s appearance. O’Rourke said that, until he saw the video, he didn’t think Pelosi knew he existed.
O’Rourke was in a similarly light-hearted mood as he approached a gaggle of local, state and national media after the speech.
“Thank y’all for being here, huge honor to receive this award,” O’Rourke said to reporters. “I bet that’s not what you want to know about, though.”