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Days after butting heads at the first Democratic presidential primary debate, Texas rivals Julián Castro and Beto O’Rourke headlined dueling events Friday evening less than a mile apart in downtown Austin, with Castro seeking to lay claim to favorite-son status.
Speaking at a state party fundraiser, Castro worked to capitalize on the media attention and national acclaim he has received since the debate, emphasizing to a crowd of a few hundred people that he was tired of being cast as the underdog Texan compared with O’Rourke.
“A few months ago, they were writing me up as the other Texan,” Castro said, playing up the donations and supporters he gained since the debate. “But that is no more. I am the Texan.”
Addressing a larger crowd minutes earlier at a free campaign rally, O’Rourke extolled the work supporters did to politically transform Texas last year while he was running for U.S. Senate — work that his campaign later cited to rebut Castro’s assertion.
“Well, there are two Texans, but only one has taken the time to visit each of the 254 counties of the state, and only one has received more votes than any Democrat in the history of Texas while building a grassroots movement that increased young voter turnout by more than double,” O’Rourke spokesman Chris Evans said.
O’Rourke staged his rally at Scholz Garten, a popular political haunt steps from the Texas Capitol, where he filled an outdoor space that has capacity for 500 people. O’Rourke did not mention the debate hostilities — or Castro — and pleaded ignorance afterward when asked about the head-to-head events.
“I don’t know what their planning was around their event,” O’Rourke said. “I just know we’re excited to be back in Austin and here at a place that means so much to us.”
Castro’s confidence comes days after his breakout moment in the debate, in which he challenged O’Rourke on why the latter does not support repealing a law that criminalizes unauthorized border crossings. Castro has argued that getting rid of the law is the best way to ensure there is no more family separation at the border, while O’Rourke has touted broader immigration proposals that he says would achieve the same goal.
Speaking with reporters after his event, O’Rourke acknowledged he could “do a better job” at the next debate of pushing back under fire while still keeping a positive overall message.
Since the kerfuffle, the two Texans have sought to further burnish their immigration credentials: Both followed up the debate with trips to a controversial migrant detention facility in Homestead, Florida, and both announced plans Friday to visit another facility this weekend in Clint, near O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso.
Speaking for about a half an hour, O’Rourke extolled his home-state supporters for their work in his Senate race, saying Texas “became born again” after his closer-than-expected loss to Republican incumbent Ted Cruz.
“It’ll take a movement like the one that we started here in Texas, like the one that we led together, to defeat Donald Trump, to bring this divided country back together again and to make sure we confront the greatest set of challenges this country has ever faced,” O’Rourke said.
O’Rourke also sought to spread the word about his rally at Clint, telling the crowd to “show up with me this Sunday, make sure this country knows what’s happening and let’s force the change those kids all deserve.”
Later in the evening, Castro met with another crowded group of supporters at the bar Cheer Up Charlies. He used much of his time onstage to introduce himself to supporters and curious spectators who maybe hadn’t paid attention to his campaign before this week.
“How did I do?” Castro asked a cheering crowd regarding his debate performance. “Going into the debate, it was clear I needed to introduce myself to a lot of folks that hadn’t heard about me before because my name ID was lower than some of the other candidates. I wanted to make sure people knew who I was and what I was about.”
And without mentioning the name of the former El Paso congressman, Castro sought to capitalize on his most prominent debate moment: the tangle with O’Rourke on immigration policy.
“Did y’all see what happened the second night of the debate?” Castro asked, referring to the moment when moderators asked 10 Democratic hopefuls if they would support the repeal of the law criminalizing unauthorized border crossings. “Nine out of 10 folks raised their hands.”
Despite their proximity, the events were not the same kind. Castro’s had been on the calendar for more than a week and billed as an “intimate meet and greet,” with tickets starting at $10 for students and proceeds going to the Texas Democratic Party. O’Rourke’s was announced Thursday morning and free to attend.
When asked by reporters what he made of O’Rourke’s rally just a few blocks away, Castro quickly diverted to the national acclaim his campaign has received in recent days. “You’ll have to ask that campaign,” he said, “but you saw the crowd tonight.”
Still, O’Rourke has maintained a large advantage over Castro in the few polls that have been done so far on the Texas primary. Some have shown former Vice President Joe Biden beating O’Rourke for first place, but all have shown O’Rourke far ahead of Castro — 15% to 3% in the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune survey, conducted from May 31 to June 9.
Castro, however, denied that his campaign was in peril, saying that most of the crowd Friday was people who were new to a campaign event of his and previously touting on Twitter that nearly 16,000 people contributed to his campaign Thursday.
Some supporters at his event seemed to share that sentiment. Before Castro took the stage Friday evening, several in the crowd said they’ve been waiting for his big break.
“I’ve already seen and heard Beto talk, so I want to see what Castro has to say,” said Brianna Rodriguez, a student at the University of Texas at Austin. “I’ve already seen Beto in Austin, so I’m good. I’m all right.”
At the O’Rourke event, not every attendee was buying into the post-debate rivalry.
“They’re both wonderful, and whatever they do is fine with me,” said Bill Boyd, a retiree from Austin. “I want to give them both money. It’s too early to know what’s going to happen. Yes, I like both of them very much. So until things happen … I give them both money because I want both men to do well.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.