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It was not long after the first Democratic primary debate last month in Miami that Beto O’Rourke acknowledged he had room for improvement.
Speaking with reporters two days later in Austin, the former El Paso congressman admitted it’s “a little tough” getting his message through with nine other candidates onstage and that he needed to “do a better job” pushing back amid the crossfire. Since then, he has only spoken more candidly about the need to assert himself better in the next debate.
Now, a month later, O’Rourke is getting the opportunity to show he has learned his lesson — and more broadly, that he should not be counted out as the massive field prepares for an autumn winnowing. Since Miami, O’Rourke has remained stuck in low single digits in most polls and posted a disappointing $3.6 million fundraising haul from the second quarter.
“Perhaps the biggest misconception about me, given where we are in the polls today, is that our chances have narrowed and diminished in this race,” O’Rourke said recently, invoking his underdog 2012 U.S. House campaign and closer-than-expected loss last year to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. “We have been a long shot before, counted down before, but through our persistence and our courage, I know that we can come through for the American people and serve this great country.”
To be sure, the other Texan in the race, Julián Castro, also has to prove himself in Detroit. The former U.S. housing secretary and San Antonio mayor had a breakout moment at the last debate — at O’Rourke’s expense — and reaped the benefits in fundraising and media attention. However, he has yet to see the kind of polling momentum that could push him into the higher reaches of the field, and unlike O’Rourke, his spot in the third debate is not yet secure.
Unlike last month, the two Texans will not be on the same stage in Detroit. O’Rourke is up Tuesday night — along with higher-polling rivals Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — while Castro goes Wednesday night, joined by opponents including Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Both nights’ debates will air at 8 p.m. on CNN and CNN.com.
The pressure to improve, though, is arguably greatest on O’Rourke after the Miami debate. It was there that Castro knocked O’Rourke on his heels over immigration — accusing him of not doing his homework on the issue — and there that O’Rourke gave a series of less-than-memorable answers that seemed more suited for his lyrical town halls than the quick-witted give-and-take of a debate. (“I’m just not a soundbite guy,” O’Rourke later said.)
In the immediate aftermath of the debate, O’Rourke’s aides insisted he accomplished what he needed to, and in a TV interview, the candidate gave himself an “A” for his performance. But as the dust settled, O’Rourke came to grips with the lackluster showing.
His campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, made him watch a replay of the debate, warning it might be “painful,” he recalled in a podcast interview that came out a few weeks later. Watching the tape, O’Rourke said he realized he had “tunnel vision” onstage, neglecting to see the full context in which exchanges were happening, and that he also needed to come across as “more relaxed and comfortable and confident.”
That has been a focus of O’Rourke’s preparations for Detroit, which have included several days of mock debates in El Paso and more time to prepare on his own than his aides budgeted for him before the first debate. He got something of a test run last week on ABC’s “The View,” when he sparred with conservative host Meghan McCain over his description of a recent Trump rally as “almost an impromptu Nuremberg rally” — but ultimately got her to agree with him that Trump supporters who broke in a racist chant at the event needed to be held accountable. His campaign was quick to spread the clip on social media.
O’Rourke’s supporters see the dynamic as akin to his U.S. Senate race last year, when he took a more aggressive stance toward Cruz after a first debate that left some backers wanting. But that evolution also showed O’Rourke’s own discomfort with political battle — two days later, he expressed some regret with labeling Cruz “Lyin’ Ted” during the second debate, borrowing Donald Trump’s old nickname for the senator.
In any case, O’Rourke will have to contend with far more voices Tuesday night — and desperation setting in among at least several rivals who likely will not qualify for the next debate.
“This is the second debate, and the reality is 12-14 people may not make it to Houston,” said Marvin Pendarvis, a South Carolina state representative who has endorsed O’Rourke. “There are gonna be people who try to stand out and really separate themselves, and that may come in the form of personal attacks. … I say that to say that Beto will be very well-prepared for that — but also being able to pivot and talk about the issues that matter.”
One of those issues will likely be health care, an ascendant issue in the primary as candidates increasingly argue over the merits of the Sanders-championed Medicare for All single-payer plan and less sweeping proposals like those advocated by Biden. O’Rourke believes he has found the sweet spot in backing Medicare for America, which would automatically enroll people in Medicare who do not have private insurance while allowing those who have insurance to keep it if they want.
In a potential preview of the debate, O’Rourke has more aggressively pitched Medicare for America in recent weeks, saying earlier this month that it would help Americans “avoid the false choice between the status quo … and something that would force tens of millions of Americans off of private insurance.”
As for Castro, he will not have his fellow Texan on the stage as a potential target, but he could still mix it up. At least one Castro supporter pointed out that he would appear closer to the middle — just one person away from Biden, potentially giving more camera time and the perception of greater stature in the field.
Then there is immigration. Biden does not support the Castro proposal that animated the Miami debate — decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings — and Castro has indicated he is ready to rumble again when it inevitably comes up.
“I don’t think I’m going to have a choice,” Castro said in a recent TV interview. “Whatever happens in this campaign, I’m not going to shy away from standing up for what I think is right for the country and doing right by the people who are hurt by this president, so yes, I absolutely will defend that, and I’ll make the contrast clear, whether it’s with Vice President Biden or with anybody else.”
Whether it’s immigration or another issues, one Iowa-based Castro supporter hopes her candidate will show off his policy chops.
“They all have ideas, but Julián Castro actually has plans laid out for his ideas,” said Bonnie Brown, a member of the Iowa Democratic Party State Central Committee who has endorsed Castro. “And I hope he would elaborate on them.”
O’Rourke has also unveiled policy proposals at a steady rate — he released his 10th last week — but even he has acknowledged his challenge on the debate stage is not so much the substance as the style.
One of his home-state supporters, Mission state Rep. Oscar Longoria, said he was looking forward to seeing “the Beto presence” again — the kind of exciting aura that followed O’Rourke at the height of his 2018 campaign. At the same time, Longoria said O’Rourke — an avid runner — knows better than anyone that the presidential race is a marathon, not a sprint.
“Pace yourself and seize the opportunity whenever you get it, and this next debate” is an opportunity, Longoria said.
Some attention has already shifted to the third debate, which is set for Sept. 12-13 at Texas Southern University in Houston. It is expected to feature a narrower cast of candidates due to stricter eligibility requirements: 130,000 donors and 2% in four polls. While O’Rourke has already met the benchmarks, Castro has crossed the donor threshold but not checked the polling box yet.
Disclosure: Texas Southern University 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.