Tragedy puts spotlight on O'Rourke

Tragedy puts spotlight on O'Rourke
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Beto O’Rourke is back at the center of the national stage, but in the most tragic circumstances imaginable.

A lone gunman killed 22 people at a Walmart in the former congressman’s hometown of El Paso on Saturday. 

O’Rourke immediately canceled other events that had been scheduled as part of his 2020 presidential bid and returned home.

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Since then, he has sought to provide comfort to those affected and to articulate why he believes President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump watching 'very closely' as Portland braces for dueling protests WaPo calls Trump admin 'another threat' to endangered species Are Democrats turning Trump-like? MORE bears some culpability for the mass shooting. 

The sole suspect is a white nationalist who wrote an online manifesto that in part echoed Trump’s complaints about an immigrant “invasion” of the United States.

O’Rourke’s distress and anger along with his prominence in the aftermath of the tragedy — giving interviews, visiting the wounded, attending memorials and representing his community — has reminded some Democratic voters why they rallied to him in the first place, during his bid to oust Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump moves forward with F-16 sale to Taiwan opposed by China The Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape O'Rourke says he will not 'in any scenario' run for Senate MORE (R-Texas) last year.

The violence in El Paso — followed less than 24 hours later by a second mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, in which nine people were killed — has shocked the country and reinvigorated the national debate around gun control.

But it has also given new urgency to discussions over whether Trump’s rhetoric, especially on matters of race, has incited violence.

O’Rourke has offered pointed criticisms of Trump and the media, accusing reporters of being too timid in their coverage of the president’s words.

“What do you think? You know the shit he's been saying,” O'Rourke told a scrum of reporters on Sunday. “He's been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. I don't know, like, members of the press, what the f---?”

The comments instantly went viral on Twitter, marking the first substantial breakout moment for O'Rourke since he launched his presidential candidacy.

“His remarks completely cut through all the thoughts-and-prayers BS and talking points and were completely from the gut,” one Democratic strategist said. “It's about as authentic as it comes.”

O’Rourke’s comments also caught Trump’s attention.

Hours before leaving Washington to visit El Paso and Dayton, Trump took to Twitter to call out O’Rourke’s name as “phony” while urging him to “be quiet.” 

On Wednesday, O’Rourke responded in kind on the social media platform: “22 people in my hometown are dead after an act of terror inspired by your racism. El Paso will not be quiet and neither will I.” 

Democratic candidates love fighting with Trump, since it raises attention for their campaigns and can lead to headlines and donations.

But the political back-and-forth also risks seeming incongruous given the grieving taking place in El Paso.

O’Rourke had seen his star fade in the Democratic race up until the past few days.

Two years ago, his campaign against Cruz caught fire. He ended up losing, but in a closer-than-expected race in the traditionally red state. The contest raised his profile and left Democrats wondering if they were looking at their next presidential nominee.

O’Rourke has been unable to recapture the magic of his Senate bid in the presidential race, however. He failed to have a breakout moment in the second round of presidential debates last week. He is expected to remain in the race, but his chances of being the nominee have been looking slimmer and slimmer.

Now, there is the question of whether a genuine, authentic response to a horrific tragedy could also have a political impact, giving new momentum to his becalmed campaign.

Democratic strategists say they feel for a candidate seeking to speak out for his community at its most vulnerable moment.

“Being from El Paso, he can speak of this tragedy from an incredibly personal standpoint and it makes his remarks very poignant and relevant,” said Democratic strategist Maria Cardona. “He comes off very authentic and he is speaking from his heart and soul on this tragic issue.”

The shootings in Dayton and El Paso have had the effect of freezing the Democratic race in place. 

Just last week, most of the candidates were busy hitting one another over policy and politics, culminating in an ugly July 31 debate in Detroit filled with tough attack lines against former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenAre Democrats turning Trump-like? Volatile presidential polls spark new round of anxieties British Bookmaker: Warren has replaced Biden as Democratic primary favorite MORE, the race’s front-runner, and Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisAre Democrats turning Trump-like? Volatile presidential polls spark new round of anxieties Conservative commentator rips Shapiro over criticism of people with multiple jobs MORE (D-Calif.).

The bruising nature of the debate worried some Democrats, who were hoping their party would focus more on criticizing Trump. This week that has changed, as Democrat after Democrat has hit the president for, as they see it, his irresponsible and inflammatory rhetoric.

Whether O’Rourke can yet reinvigorate this presidential bid will be determined over the next several months.

Right now, he is keeping his primary focus on his community, which is more than 80 percent Hispanic, and his pride in how it has responded to an act of shocking violence.

“I’m just so proud of this community, the way that we’ve overcome what happened on Saturday and defined ourselves not by the terror attack but by this big bold beautiful safe community, one of the safest places in America and it’s safe because of its diversity,” O’Rourke said in an interview on MSNBC.