MIAMI — On the first question of the first Democratic presidential primary debate, Beto O'Rourke got dinged by moderators for not giving a straight answer.
It didn't get easier from there.
It was tough sledding for the former El Paso congressman here Wednesday night, as he found himself in the hot seat more than any of the nine other candidates onstage. He drew sharp jabs from two rivals — most notably fellow Texan Julián Castro — and they turned the knife afterward, looking to undercut O'Rourke on two issues front and center in the primary: immigration and health care.
O'Rourke's surrogates chalked up the heat to the fact he was one of the leading candidates on the stage.
"Clearly a lot of people had interest in connecting with us, and that's great because that means that people are looking at us, they feel like that we have something to say, it's important to say, and we had a lot of opportunities to lean in on our substance and our policies," O'Rourke campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon told reporters after the debate.
South Carolina state Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, who has endorsed O'Rourke, put it more plainly.
"He's polling well, at least compared to where they're at," Pendarvis said, "and so at the end of the day, I think you've gotta kinda attack the horse that's ahead of you."
To be sure, though, O'Rourke's poll numbers heading into the debate — in the low single digits for weeks — were not much better than those of the candidates who went after him onstage, and some of the night's bumps were of his own making.
On the first question — would you support an individual marginal tax rate of 70%? — O'Rourke did not say, even after the moderators pressed him. Along the way, he sought to show off his Spanish, quickly sparking memes as his nearby opponents appeared taken aback at his sudden bilingual turn.
Whatever ribbing O'Rourke received for the moment, his campaign seemed pleased that his Spanish fluency was among the first things that voters just tuning in learned about him Wednesday night — especially for a debate that aired on Telemundo.
But more memorable may have been other candidates' ambushing of O'Rourke on some of the biggest issues in the primary. Castro's aggression was particularly striking as he zeroed in on O'Rourke for not supporting the repeal of a law that criminalizes illegal border crossings, an issue that the former San Antonio mayor has sought to make a primary litmus test since including it in the immigration plan that he released in April.
After the debate, Castro showed no signs of letting up, repeating his onstage claim that O'Rourke hasn't "done his homework" on the matter and noting that at least two other debate participants had gotten behind the idea.
"I find it very ironic that a senator from Massachusetts and a senator from New Jersey are the ones who understand this border policy and this law better than Congressman O'Rourke," Castro told reporters, referring to U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, respectively.
Minutes earlier, O'Malley Dillon declared to the media, "I can tell you that Beto O'Rourke has done his homework on immigration, and I feel very confident" in that. She later tweeted that O'Rourke "will never take a back seat to anyone on the critical issues of our time, especially immigration."
Later in the night, O'Rourke offered his own rebuttal to Castro's criticism that he hadn't studied up on immigration.
"He's wrong on this one," O'Rourke told reporters, describing legislation he worked on in Congress to shield migrant families from criminal prosecution. "I think we have the same goal. I think he's got it wrong on how he describes my position."
Castro was not the only contender who did not hesitate to target O'Rourke. Earlier in the debate, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio interjected after O'Rourke touted his support for Medicare for America, a proposal that would enroll the uninsured in government-run health insurance while letting those with private insurance keep it if they prefer it.
"Congressman O'Rourke, private insurance is not working for tens of millions of Americans," de Blasio said. "How do you defend a system that is not working?"
"That's right, so for those for whom it's not working, they can choose Medicare," O'Rourke said as de Blasio continued to press his point, speaking over O'Rourke.
Speaking with reporters afterward, de Blasio pointed to the exchange when asked what he thought was the "defining moment" of the debate.
"Let's stop playing around — we're either for change or we're not," de Blasio told reporters. "You start praising the private insurance system that has robbed people blind, then you're not for change. So we have to at least have a decision on the stage, like, who's for real and who's not?"
While the exchanges with Castro and de Blasio were tense, O'Rourke's allies praised him for not responding in kind and seeking to stay above the fray. To his Texas supporters, the Castro dust-up was an especially new phenomenon after the two spent most of the race until now being cordial with one another.
"Well, that's part of the sport, and we've got great candidates running," state Rep. Gina Hinojosa of Austin told reporters. "I choose Beto because of the way he engages, the way he speaks and inspires people like no one I've ever seen."