By Jonathan Tilove Austin American-Statesman
AUSTIN, Texas — Beto O’Rourke said Thursday that he is returning to the presidential campaign trail for the first time since the Aug. 3 massacre of 22 people at the Walmart in his hometown of El Paso, but that the trail won’t take him to typical venues in early-voting states.
Instead, O’Rourke said he is heading to those places in America most victimized by President Donald Trump.
“I want to be the kind of leader for this country El Paso has raised me and taught me to be,” O’Rourke said, speaking to a small audience of supporters and broadcast live on C-SPAN. “But as we head back on the campaign trail today, I know there’s a way to do this better. And that came to me last week.”
“Someone asked if I was going to be heading back to Iowa, go to the Iowa State Fair, corn dogs and Ferris wheels. And I said, no, I can’t go back for that. But I also cannot go back to that,” O’Rourke said. “The kind of challenges that we face in this country at this moment of crisis require an urgency, unless we want to reap the consequences of failing to meet them, consequences that we lived and I hope learned from in El Paso on Aug. 3.”
“And so to those places where Donald Trump has been terrorizing, and terrifying and demeaning our fellow Americans, that’s where you will find me in this campaign,” O’Rourke said.
It was a rhetorical formulation, delivered by the lanky O’Rourke, that called to mind Tom Joad’s closing speech in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” as delivered by Henry Fonda in the 1940 film adaptation: “Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.”
“From El Paso, we’re heading to Mississippi to be with those families who have lost a loved one temporarily, maybe for the indefinite future, because of the hostility of this administration toward immigrants, and I want to be there to help lift them up, to tell their story,” O’Rourke said, referring to the roundup of hundreds of workers lacking proper documentation to reside in the U.S.
“The immigrants in this community, in this state, in this country, will continue to be attacked, not just killed as they were at the Walmart, but terrorized as we just saw last week in Mississippi, 600 people who came to this country for the privilege of working the toughest, shittiest jobs that no one else here would allow their children to work at chicken processing plants and picking cotton … working two or three shifts, maybe making minimum wage, if they’re lucky,” O’Rourke said.
O’Rourke said being back in El Paso the last dozen days, “there’s some part of me, and it’s a big part of me, that wants to stay here and be with my family and be with my community. I love El Paso.”
“There have been some who suggested that I stay in Texas and run for Senate,” O’Rourke said. “But that would not be good enough for this community, that would not be good enough for El Paso, that would not be good enough for this country.
“We must take the fight directly to the source of this problem, that person who has caused this pain in this country in this moment of peril. And that is Donald Trump,” O’Rourke said.
Like others, the former three-term congressman from El Paso has blamed Trump’s rhetoric about a Latino “invasion” across the southern border for inspiring the suspect in the El Paso shooting, “his manifesto repeating the very words used by the president of the United States to justify this act of terror and hatred and violence and death.”
“I’m confident that if at this moment, we do not wake up to this threat, then we, as a country, will die in our sleep,” O’Rourke said.
O’Rourke is at 3% nationally in the most recent RealClearPolitics polling average.
His new strategy is an unorthodox one. Underdog candidates depend on gaining momentum with better-than expected performances in smaller, early states, starting with the Iowa caucuses, and O’Rourke’s energy and town hall style seemed like it would be a good fit for a place where caucus-goers want to get a close look at candidates. But, according to the Monmouth University Poll in early August, O’Rourke, who had 6% support in Iowa in April, has fallen below 1%.
Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Cotten said in an email that O’Rourke’s new strategy smacked of cynical opportunism.
“After proclaiming just last week El Paso ‘need(s) to heal,’ Beto O’Rourke is now using the tragedy in his hometown to bolster his struggling presidential bid,” Cotten said. “O’Rourke’s second campaign reboot is likely to end up failing just like his first. Texans know O’Rourke is more interested in his own personal political gain than he is in helping his hometown heal.”