Beto O’Rourke, in Las Vegas, asks critics to trust the process

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Beto O’Rourke is still here.

At a Thursday night rally in east Las Vegas, a young crowd saw many of the familiar flashes that catapulted the former congressman to political stardom during a 2018 Texas senatorial bid. O’Rourke is now running for the Democratic presidential nomination, and he returned to Nevada this week after two months away from the state that saw his polling numbers and viral moments dip in a crowded field.

But the energy is there, even after 10-plus hours of campaigning in 100-degree heat in which he helped vacuum floors as he shadowed a home-care worker and met with felons who had their voting rights restored through state legislation.

There was a stage set up at the East Las Vegas Community Center. He ignored it, instead favoring a small wooden box in the center of the modest, young crowd.

He spun 360 degrees as he addressed the crowd, and he spoke rapidly with whirling hands that moved up and down as if he were dribbling a basketball. He packed numbers and Texas anecdotes and stories from the road into a 20-minute speech. Then he spent more than an hour taking questions from the crowd.

“I felt a little down on him after the first debate,” said Kevin Ong of Las Vegas. “But this helped reignite my support. He is a front-runner for me.”

Dan Santos, who waited with Ong in a line after the event for a photo, said he appreciated the authenticity of O’Rourke and believes he “has a bright future in government — even if he doesn’t win it this time.”

Christina Aranda and Chris Elliott first became fans after watching YouTube videos of O’Rourke during his Senate campaign. An HBO documentary, a Vanity Fair cover and two national debates later, Aranda remains a firm supporter. A psychologist, Aranda said O’Rourke was the first candidate to speak clearly about the country’s mental health needs.

Aranda was satisfied with the answer he gave a young nurse, who had asked earlier in the evening how O’Rourke planned to eat into doctor and nurse shortages — especially after increasing health care access. He favors debt forgiveness for medical, nursing and residency programs, as well as overall education funding increases.

Elliott said he is still shopping around for a 2020 candidate, but he feels O’Rourke’s demonstrated ability to “gain ground in a hard state” like Texas would be beneficial to beating President Donald Trump.

There was energy and punk music and deep policy discussion, but a lingering fact remains: Sen. Elizabeth Warren drew a crowd twice the size of O’Rourke’s during her similarly timed rally at the same location a month ago.

Is there something to the cynicism surrounding O’Rourke in recent months? Has he lost his momentum?

In an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal after the town hall, O’Rourke said his critics should look back at his campaign to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz, who beat him by two percentage points.

“If you followed it, you saw that it didn’t just happen overnight,” he said. “It was two years of meetings like this one here tonight, of roundtables like the one that I had this morning, of meeting people where they were and bringing them in. And only after spending the time, and traveling the miles and putting in the hours, were we able to produce that kind of a result.”

He referenced a recent University of Texas at Tyler poll that put him more than 10 points ahead of Trump in that state. Winning Texas — and its 38 electoral votes — would be key to a Democratic victory but also would “forever change the political landscape of the country,” he said.

“There’s no amount of money, there’s no one TV moment,” O’Rourke said. “It’s really the willingness to bring everybody in and make sure no one is taken for granted or written off that does this at the end of the day. And, uniquely among the campaigns, we’re running for president in that way. And I feel good about that.”

O’Rourke said he is still getting to know the people of Nevada and their strengths and struggles through extensive campaign days like Thursday. He and 18 other candidates will participate in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees’ candidate forum Saturday in Las Vegas. O’Rourke will then head north for events Sunday in Reno and Minden.

Asked how he planned to appeal to Nevada’s diverse communities, O’Rourke noted that Las Vegas and his hometown of El Paso are similar in terms of heat and diversity. He said speaking to communities that were often left out of the Texas political process and bringing them into it led to record-level turnout in his Senate race.

“Taking that same approach here in Nevada … I want to make sure that we’re not writing anybody off and taking anybody for granted, and that we’re doing the hard work necessary to connect with everybody,” O’Rourke said. “It’s very, very important to us.”

O’Rourke said four months of hard campaigning across the country showed him that the country is in one of the darkest periods in its history, but his optimism has only grown.

“I’m getting to meet and listen to people who don’t just ask the questions, and you saw this here,” O’Rourke said, “but who come up with the solutions.”

He continued: “I feel like my challenge is to bring all these stories to everyone in the country, to make sure that we all have hope that in a very dark, divided moment, there’s a way to bring people together. And to remember that we’ve got this, at the end of the day. We can make this happen.”