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Analysis: Is Beto O’Rourke the bomb or just a bottle rocket?

O'Rourke came close to a big political upset last year by harnessing Democratic voters' desire to deny Ted Cruz another term in the U.S. Senate. Could that work in a presidential race?

Beto O'Rourke at the Metallica concert at the University of Texas at El Paso on Feb. 28, 2019.

Correction appended

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Out of the two or three dozen Democrats running — or talking about running — for president, the Washington, D.C.-based Club for Growth launched its first attacks in the direction of a former congressman from El Paso who lost his race for U.S. Senate four months ago.

That attention — a two-minute TV ad attacking Beto O’Rourke’s "white male privilege" — is either target practice or an early shot aimed to hobble a candidate who poses a real threat to the Republican incumbent in the White House.

Maybe it’s both things.

O’Rourke, unknown nationally a year ago (and to a significant extent, still unknown) and unknown across most of Texas until his famous race against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz last year, is getting serious attention.

He has a paper-thin public record, but that didn’t stop either of the two previous presidents — especially the current one. O’Rourke served three terms in Congress, did time on the El Paso City Council and watched his late father, a prominent local politician, practice the civil arts for years. He speaks Spanish. He had a punk band back in the day.

None of that explains the intense political buzz.

O’Rourke ran a suicide race for U.S. Senate, signing on in late 2017 to seek the Democratic nomination to run against Cruz, who was seeking re-election for the first time after coming close to winning the Republican nomination for president in 2016.

Cruz was known, popular with Republicans and unpopular with Democrats. O’Rourke was, in relative terms, nobody. But a combination of circumstance and charisma made it a race.

The circumstances then were complicated but in some ways mirror the layout of the 2020 race for president. Cruz was well known, and charismatic in his own way: Compare him, if you don’t initially buy that, to the state’s patrician senior U.S. Sen. John Cornyn or to Cruz’s old boss, Gov. Greg Abbott, neither of whom has shaken his years as a solemn and reserved state judge. They’re both formidable politicians, but they don’t have the magnetic qualities of Cruz.

Or, as it turns out, of O’Rourke.

He made the first stage of that Senate campaign out of negative feelings for the incumbent. The El Paso congressman was doing well in horse-race polling against Cruz before many Texans knew who he was. They knew who he wasn’t. It was a contest, alright: Ted Cruz vs. Not Ted Cruz.

And O’Rourke’s charisma was a match for Cruz’s. He got out of his Senate primary with numbers that reflect his low profile at the time and that also underline his challenges capturing Latino votes. He got 61.8 percent of the vote against two other unknowns: Sema Hernandez and Edward Kimbrough.

At that stage, the Senate race (and the governor’s race) looked like a rerun of the last two decades — a mismatch between a Democratic Party without big names and a Republican Party with strong incumbents, lots of money and a firm grip on a very red state.

Cut to the chase. Beto lost, but he raised some $80 million and finished 214,921 votes — 2.6 percentage points — behind Cruz. His run was credited with making other races on the ballot a lot closer than they should have been and for helping push some down-ballot candidates over the top.

He emerged as a loser, and as a star.

The parallels between that race and the next one might seem a stretch, but try the argument. A recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll asked registered voters whether they would vote for or against Donald Trump in a presidential election held today. Among Texas voters — you know, the red-state people — it was a virtual tie, with 51 percent saying they would “definitely” or “probably” vote against Trump, and 49 percent saying they would probably/definitely vote for him.

Donald Trump vs. Not Donald Trump.

Can O’Rourke raise money like he did last year, and do it quickly and effectively enough to overcome the horde of Democrats seeking the nomination? Does that relatively flimsy resume show him as Beto the Unready, or does it just mean he has fewer past exploits and decisions to defend? It has worked both ways in recent elections at the state and national level.

And will O’Rourke electrify Democrats around the country the way he so recently thrilled them in Texas? The next big thing, or last year’s sensation?

At the moment, he’s the most interesting character onstage. The trick is to stay there.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Sema Hernandez' name.

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