BURLINGTON, Iowa — Democrat Beto O'Rourke jumped into the 2020 presidential race Thursday, shaking up the already packed field and pledging to win over voters from both major parties as he tries to translate his political celebrity into a formidable White House bid.
After months of ignoring states that vote early in the presidential nominating process, the former Texas congressman made his first trip to Iowa — popping into a coffee shop in the town of Keokuk while many cable networks aired live coverage. He took questions about everything from his support of federal legalization of marijuana to abortion rights to the possibility of a universal basic income, all while characteristically waving his arms frequently and gesticulating fervently.
It was the kind of high-energy, off-the-cuff style that made him a sensation in Texas, but O'Rourke also was clear that he doesn't believe in strict immigration policies — drawing a policy distinction that could allow him to clash openly with President Donald Trump on the issue.
Trump personally took note of O'Rourke's gyrations.
"Well, I think he's got a lot of hand movement," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. He added: "Is he crazy or is that just how he acts?"
Until he challenged Republican Sen. Ted Cruz last year, O'Rourke was little known outside his hometown of El Paso. But the Spanish-speaking, 46-year-old former punk rocker used grassroots organizing and social media savvy to mobilize young voters and minorities and get within 3 percentage points of winning in the nation's largest red state.
"This is going to be a positive campaign that seeks to bring out the very best from every single one of us," O'Rourke said in a video announcement before dawn on Thursday, his wife seated next to him on a couch. "We saw the power of this in Texas."
After weeks of gleefully teasing an announcement, O'Rourke now must prove whether his zeal for personal contact with voters will resonate on a much larger stage than Texas. For all the buzz around him, the former three-term congressman hasn't demonstrated much skill in domestic or foreign policy. And, as a white man, he's entering a field that has been celebrated for its diverse roster of women and people of color.
California Sen. Kamala Harris singled him out by name in an email to supporters, noting that a "record number of women and people of color" are running and adding she was looking forward to "substantive debates" with candidates including "the newest to join the race today, Beto O'Rourke."
O'Rourke recently told "Vanity Fair" that he was "just born to be in" the presidential race. Asked about that after a Washington conference, fellow presidential candidate and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker noted Thursday that he's dedicated to working with "communities that are really being left out and left behind."
"I've got decades of showing people where my heart is, where my dedication is," Booker said.
In Iowa, O'Rourke said, "I could care less about your party persuasion, your religion." His record in Congress has drawn criticism from some for being too moderate, but O'Rourke also spoke at length on Thursday about combating climate change and supporting the Green New Deal, a sweeping environmental plan backed by liberal Democrats.
He started the race in southeast Iowa, where none of the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls have gone so far. Bordering the Mississippi River and featuring unemployment rates exceeding the state and national average.
"These communities have slowly been hollowed out by the failure to transition from the extraction economy to a sustainable one," said Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who got his political start in the region.
O'Rourke visited all 254 of Texas' counties while running for Senate. It's a strategy that could serve him well in Iowa, and he's vowed to "show up everywhere."
In New Hampshire, home to the nation's first primary, an O'Rourke adviser asked for guidance on how they might schedule a driving tour through the state should he arrive coming from the West. O'Rourke has promised to travel the country listening to voters, then will return to El Paso, on the border with Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on March 30 for an official campaign kickoff.
The pop-culture world already had its eye on O'Rourke during the Senate campaign: NBA star LeBron James wore an O'Rourke hat after video of the Texan defending NFL players' right to protest during the national anthem went viral this summer. Beyonce, a Houston native, endorsed O'Rourke.
Black-and-white "Beto" yard signs became staples in places like New York and Los Angeles while O'Rourke was still only running for Senate. And he was the only presidential prospect interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, who appeared genuinely excited last month about the prospect of an O'Rourke White House run.
O'Rourke refused donations from outside political groups and shunned pollsters during his Senate campaign. Nonetheless, his nationwide popularity helped him rake in more than $80 million during the Senate bid, including a staggering $38 million between July 2018 and September 2018.
While challenging Cruz, O'Rourke insisted that he had no interest in running for president. But during his election night concession speech, he let rip the kind of casual swearing that's become a trademark, declaring to supporters on national television: "All of you, showing the country how you do this, I'm so f---ing proud of you guys," and promising, "We'll see you down the road."