2020 Presidential Race

"I can do a better job": O'Rourke acknowledges need for campaign pivot

Two months in to his presidential bid — and no longer flying high — the former El Paso congressman is making clear he needs to do more to take his message national.

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke appeared on ABC's "The View" on Tuesday.
Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke appeared on ABC's "The View" on Tuesday.  Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

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Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke is acknowledging a need to reorient his 2-month-old campaign amid sagging poll numbers, saying he can do more to broadcast his message nationally after spending weeks intensely focused on in-person campaigning.

The former El Paso congressman made the acknowledgment during a pair of TV interviews in New York City, first telling MSNBC host Rachel Maddow on Monday night that he recognizes "I can do a better job ... of talking to a national audience beyond the town halls we are having." Then, on Tuesday morning, he reiterated the sentiment on ABC's "The View," where host Whoopi Goldberg began by asking, "This is your relaunch today, maybe?"

"Focusing on people where they are was critically important," O'Rourke said, "but I can't tell you how many times I was asked to find a way to get on 'The View' at one of those town hall meetings because there are people who are unable to come to those town halls or in states that we have not visited yet, and I want to make sure that I have a chance to answer your questions here today so they can see who I am."

O'Rourke was initially reluctant to step up his presence on the TV circuit, where many of his primary opponents have been ubiquitous, particularly on the Democratic-friendly MSNBC. He spent the first two months of his campaign setting an aggressive pace across the country, holding 150 events across 15 states.

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Still, some supporters took notice of where O'Rourke was not appearing — on their TV screens. During a visit to Virginia last month, O'Rourke told a concerned backer that he preferred to meet voters "eyeball to eyeball" rather than campaign from a studio. Still, "at some point, I may have to give in," he said.

That began in earnest earlier this month, when O'Rourke sat for interviews with Univision's Jorge Ramos and and two other MSNBC hosts, Chris Hayes and Al Sharpton, before committing to this week's media appearances in New York City. Then, as O'Rourke headed to the city Monday, his campaign announced he will participate in a CNN town hall next Tuesday in Des Moines, Iowa.

O’Rourke’s appearance on “The View,” at least, meant revisiting some of the early scrutiny of his campaign, including over the privilege he enjoys as a married white man. O’Rourke acknowledged there are “things that I have been privileged to do in my life that others cannot,” and he expressed some regret about one episode in particular: a Vanity Fair cover that coincided with his campaign announcement and quoted him as saying he is “just born to be in it."

“It reinforces that perception of privilege,” O’Rourke said while again clarifying that he meant he felt a calling to public service, not an entitlement to run for president. “No one is born to be president of the United States, least of all me.”

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O'Rourke's campaign pivot is unfolding as the once high-flying O'Rourke contends with a decline in polls — both nationally and in early voting states — as well as a drop in overall media attention amid the massive presidential field. In recent weeks, he has been largely overshadowed by two rivals: former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

At the same time, his campaign has begun to take the shape of a more professional operation. His campaign manager, Jen O'Malley Dillon, recently began working full time out of his El Paso headquarters, and he announced the hiring of another veteran of former President Barack Obama's campaigns, top delegate strategist Jeff Berman.

O'Rourke's campaign has entered a new phase in more ways than one. As part of his New York City trip, O'Rourke held his first 2020 fundraiser Monday evening, an event where tickets started at $250 and hosts were asked to raise $25,000. A few days after declaring his candidacy in mid-March, O'Rourke said he was not planning to hold such fundraisers, but he appears to have reasoned that they are worth it.

Still, O'Rourke sought to conduct the New York City fundraiser in a characteristically transparent manner, broadcasting his remarks live on his Facebook page.

O'Rourke was set to return to Texas later Tuesday for another fundraiser, an evening reception in Houston.