The Memo: O'Rourke looks to hit reset button

The Memo: O'Rourke looks to hit reset button

Beto O’Rourke will give a major speech Thursday morning in an effort to infuse his presidential campaign with new life  — and it could be his last chance.

The former Texas congressman has struggled to gain traction since entering the Democratic race in March, never recapturing the excitement that surrounded his Senate bid against incumbent Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP strategist predicts Biden will win nomination, cites fundraising strength 3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 The Hill's Morning Report - Trump on defense over economic jitters MORE (R-Texas) last year.

But O’Rourke has been catapulted back to national attention in the most tragic circumstances imaginable — the Aug. 3 mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, that left 22 people dead.

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O’Rourke came off the campaign trail when the shooting happened, and has been a powerful voice of support for the victims. 

He has also brought new vigor to his criticisms of President TrumpDonald John TrumpSarah Huckabee Sanders becomes Fox News contributor The US-Iranian scuffle over a ship is a sideshow to events in the Gulf South Korea: US, North Korea to resume nuclear talks 'soon' MORE, whom O’Rourke holds culpable for employing incendiary rhetoric and creating a toxic atmosphere. 

The sole suspect in the shooting appears to have posted an online manifesto in which he expressed anger about an “invasion” of Latino immigrants — a term Trump has also used.

At one point, O’Rourke profanely lambasted members of the media for, as he sees it, failing to “connect the dots” between Trump, racism and violence.

“You know the shit he’s been saying,” O’Rourke told reporters, referring to Trump. “He’s been calling Mexican immigrants ‘rapists’ and ‘criminals.’ I dunno, like members of the press, What the f---? … It’s these questions that you know the answers to … He’s not ‘tolerating’ racism, he is promoting racism.”

The moment went viral, as did another encounter O’Rourke had with a witness to the shooting. O’Rourke gave the man, identified as Sean Nixon, his personal cellphone number and the two embraced.

Such moments can always be viewed through a cynical lens but, in this case, there is a widespread sense that O’Rourke’s feelings are sincere.

Keir Murray, a Democratic strategist in Texas, said, “I thought his response came across as very genuine. He was in a unique position to offer the response that he did because it is his city. It is a fine line and I think he largely walked it pretty well, and he did demonstrate some of his strengths.”

Robert Shrum, who was chief strategist for 2004 Democratic nominee John KerryJohn Forbes KerryA lesson of the Trump, Tlaib, Omar, Netanyahu affair Trump's winning weapon: Time The Memo: O'Rourke looks to hit reset button MORE, agreed. 

“I think the reason he was so powerful was that he was genuinely expressing what he believed. I don’t think it was a political strategy,” Shrum said. “There is a kind of cynical reflex that says, ‘A-ha! This is a tactical move or a strategic move.’ I don’t think it was.”

The key political question now is whether O’Rourke’s campaign can gain some much-needed momentum as the mass shooting fades from the headlines.

NBC News on Wednesday reported that his speech in El Paso on Thursday morning would revolve around three key themes: racism, white supremacy and guns. It will also mark O’Rourke’s return to full-on campaign mode.

An Economist-YouGov poll released on Wednesday gave some reasons to be optimistic for O’Rourke’s camp, even as it also made clear the scale of the challenge he faces.

The poll put O’Rourke at 5 percent support among Democrats nationally. That was his best result in any major national poll since mid-June and put him very close to South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegPoll shows Biden, Warren tied with Trump in Arizona ABC unveils moderators for third Democratic debate National poll finds tight race between Biden, Sanders and Warren MORE (6 percent) and California Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisPoll shows Biden, Warren tied with Trump in Arizona Rising Warren faces uphill climb with black voters Inslee drops out of 2020 presidential race MORE (8 percent). Both candidates have attracted a lot more positive media attention than has O’Rourke.

On the other hand, O’Rourke’s share of support in that poll still showed a huge gulf between him and the front-runners, with former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSarah Huckabee Sanders becomes Fox News contributor Poll shows Biden, Warren tied with Trump in Arizona Giuliani says he discussed Biden with Ukrainian official MORE at 23 percent and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenKrystal Ball: Elites have chosen Warren as The One; Lauren Claffey: Is AOC wrong about the Electoral College? Poll shows Biden, Warren tied with Trump in Arizona McConnell rejects Democrats' 'radical movement' to abolish filibuster MORE (D-Mass.) at 20 percent.

More broadly, some political experts fear that O’Rourke has never provided a compelling enough rationale for his candidacy, nor shown the qualities that would differentiate him from his rivals.

“His ability to emote and convey empathy and an air of commitment to his politics, is certainly one of his strengths,” said James Henson, the director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. 

“But one of the things that we’ve seen is that is not enough, at least in this field, given that he is not the only one able to do that — and that there are more established candidates in the field.”

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Skeptics also note that O’Rourke has struggled at the highest political level. 

His performances in both of the televised Democratic primary debates so far have been uninspired. His fundraising, hugely impressive during his Senate race, was lackluster in the second quarter of this year, when he brought in about $3.6 million. By contrast, Buttigieg led the field with $24.8 million.

Previous attempts at rebooting his campaign, such as one in May that included an appearance on ABC’s “The View,” have fallen flat.

Henson said of the aftermath of the El Paso shooting “one hesitates to call something like that an ‘opportunity,’ but it has given him an unfortunate opportunity to re-present himself to the public."

But, he added, “I am a little skeptical that it is enough to do much more than potentially raise his name recognition a bit. But, as always, it depends what he does with that.”

O’Rourke will begin answering that question on Thursday morning.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.