EL PASO — As Beto O’Rourke waded through a crowd that had gathered Thursday night to honor victims of the mass shooting in El Paso, the struggling presidential candidate was welcomed as a hometown hero.
“Beto!” someone shouted, addressing this city’s former congressman. “Thank you for being our voice!”
Mr. O’Rourke shook hands and paid his respects at the memorial to the victims of the Aug. 3 massacre at a Walmart that had targeted Latinos and left 22 people dead. He then walked several yards away to pose for photographs with admirers. Many praised him for communicating El Paso’s grief and anger as a seemingly constant presence on national television, and some expressed their support for his White House bid.
The moment captured a central tension that has characterized the past week for Mr. O’Rourke: A presidential candidate whose campaign had stalled was suddenly back in the spotlight — but only because of a tragedy in a city that is core to his personal and political identity.
Mr. O’Rourke spent the week off the campaign trail as many of his competitors descended on Iowa for the state fair and other party activities, and his decision to stay home was widely lauded by party activists. Yet he also received a sharp reminder of the significant challenges he faces in the 2020 race, despite the new outpouring of good-will at home and online. A new Monmouth University poll, conducted Aug. 1-4, found Mr. O’Rourke with less than 1 percent of support from likely Iowa Democratic caucusgoers. He was at 6 percent in the Monmouth poll in April.
His poll numbers have also been weak in New Hampshire and South Carolina, as well as nationally, and his July debate performance and his most recent campaign fund-raising report both fell short of the heightened expectations for his candidacy among some in the party earlier in the year.
In recent days, Democrats ranging from a former Houston mayor to rank-and-file Iowa voters have urged Mr. O’Rourke to deepen his focus on Texas and run against Senator John Cornyn in the 2020 election, like he did against Senator Ted Cruz in 2018 — and to shelve his White House ambitions for now.
But Mr. O’Rourke’s allies and advisers hope that his impassioned response to the massacre in his hometown, with flashes of raw anger that match the mood of many Democrats, will prompt voters nationally to give him another look. His remarks calling President Trump a white supremacist, and his cussing out of the news media as he urged journalists to “connect the dots” between the El Paso killings and Mr. Trump’s anti-immigrant language and exploitation of racism, drew praise from both liberals and moderates.
In an interview at his home on Friday afternoon, Mr. O’Rourke said in the wake of the shooting, he is even more determined to pursue the Democratic nomination to oppose Mr. Trump.
“I’m running for president,” he said firmly, when asked to respond to those pushing a Senate bid. “This community holds so much for the rest of the country. Whether it’s immigration, whether it’s our safety, whether it’s our connection to the rest of the world, whether it’s the fact that we’re on the front line of so many issues that can and will define America.”
El Paso, a friendly, bilingual border community that consistently ranks as one of America’s safest cities, has long been central to Mr. O’Rourke’s message. As he puts it, the diverse city is “a powerful example for the way forward for this country” — a point that has taken on a new urgency for Mr. O’Rourke, who has had a bigger national platform to make that case in the last week than at any point since launching his campaign.
In a nearly 40-minute interview, Mr. O’Rourke described feeling “deep sadness, great anger, overwhelming pride and just a very clear purpose in knowing what’s at stake.” He described how shaken his young children were by the shooting. And he detailed how moved he was by the grace, grit and even grim humor displayed by the many survivors and victims’ families he has met at vigils, funerals and hospitals.
Toward the end of the interview, he suggested that his experience in El Paso at this moment has uniquely prepared him to take on Mr. Trump, who has been accused of emboldening white nationalists through nativist and racist rhetoric.
“At a time that the president is attacking this community, this part of the world, the U.S.-Mexico border, cities of immigrants, that’s where I am,” Mr. O’Rourke said. “That’s where I live. That’s where we’re raising our family. I can meet him on this issue in very personal terms and from a place that no one else can.”
Mr. O’Rourke has been careful to stress that his first focus is on El Paso, not his political future, and Democrats close to him swat away any suggestion that his frequent television appearances are designed to help him in 2020. Still, as he prepares to return to the campaign trail, potentially later this week, Mr. O’Rourke said he believed more people were now attuned to his message.
“I can tell, from so many people who approached us last night at the memorial and said, ‘You are speaking for us, and you are defending this community and you are connecting the dots and you are helping this country understand how this happened,’” he said.
“I’m sure there’s some way to quantify that, measure that,” he added.
Mr. O’Rourke’s campaign pulled ads and fund-raising appeals in the wake of the shooting, though the “donate” button still features prominently on his website. But they pointed to other measures when asked about Mr. O’Rourke’s assertion that his message is breaking through, including social media metrics such as video views, Facebook users reached, and impressions and engagements on Twitter.
His team said that on the Sunday and Monday after the shooting, as Mr. O’Rourke spoke out forcefully against Mr. Trump, the campaign reached about 10 times more people than on an average day. That Sunday, Monday and Tuesday were the biggest days of engagement across social platforms for the campaign since it began, his aides said.
Former State Senator Eliot Shapleigh of Texas, who has been a mentor to Mr. O’Rourke, expressed disappointment with the trajectory of the race to date.
But Mr. O’Rourke’s response in the wake of the shooting, especially to Mr. Trump, has “crystallized his message in a way that’s been beneficial.”
“He’s an emotional guy, that’s how he connects with audiences,” Mr. Shapleigh said. “I think this tragedy will help him do that around the country.”
Up to this point, connecting has been a struggle for Mr. O’Rourke.
He began his campaign as a formidable contender, alarming other candidates with the encouragement he received from alumni of the Obama political operation and the charisma he displayed as a surprisingly competitive, if unsuccessful, Senate candidate in Texas last year.
But soon after joining the race, Mr. O’Rourke embarked on an apology tour of sorts: for joking that his wife, Amy, was home raising their children, “sometimes with my help”; for writings dating back to his teen years; for benefiting from white privilege. He struck some observers as indulgent with an angsty pre-campaign road trip. And he was mocked as entitled after appearing in a Vanity Fair cover story about the campaign and declaring that he was “just born to be in it.”
The second-quarter fund-raising haul Mr. O’Rourke announced in July, $3.6 million, was closer to what top 2018 House contenders raised than it was to many of his presidential rivals. His two debate performances did not yield breakout moments, either.
“In the first one he got blindsided,” Mr. Shapleigh said, referencing a clash over immigration policy with Julián Castro, a former housing secretary and fellow Texan. “I don’t think he really thought he’d be attacked by Castro. He did better in the second debate but he didn’t rise to a top-tier candidate. He didn’t take an issue and run with it.”
Mr. O’Rourke has presented as a much fiercer figure in recent days, though he insisted that many of his most memorable remarks have been in keeping with messages he has long pressed. The difference is that Mr. O’Rourke is now doing so in the glare of a national spotlight that has eluded him for months.
As he attended a funeral Thursday afternoon for a shooting victim, Leonardo Campos, some of Mr. Campos’s friends and co-workers asked for photographs. Inside the funeral home’s lobby, Mr. O’Rourke obliged, offering a closelipped smile. When he stepped outside, he took questions from Spanish-language reporters, expressing pride in El Paso’s immigrant roots.
Asked how he grapples with the fact that he is receiving newfound attention because of a mass shooting, Mr. O’Rourke replied, “Not much for me to grapple with. I am focused on my hometown, the community in which I was raised, the community in which Amy and I are raising our kids, the place that means everything to me.”
“Everything I’ve got is for El Paso,” he added.
Indeed, he skipped several major events in Iowa that drew virtually the entire presidential field.
“That’s where he should be,” said Sandra Stone-Flomo, a retired teacher from Des Moines, of Mr. O’Rourke’s decision to remain in El Paso.
But she said that Mr. O’Rourke would better serve his party by running for the Senate.
As most of the candidates attended a major Democratic dinner in Clear Lake, Iowa, Mr. O’Rourke spent Friday evening at his campaign headquarters, an industrial loft-like space in El Paso. There, he thanked his team for its work on behalf of the local community and shared stories of the survivors he had encountered.
He also emphasized his resolve to run for president.
“We are 100 percent committed to winning this race, winning the nomination, defeating Donald Trump, serving this country in the White House,” he said. “But as we all know, this is the right place for us to be and the right thing for us to do right now.”
His team applauded.