Beto O'Rourke, Democratic sensation, puts it all on the line


Washington (AFP)

Fueled by hopeful progressives, elevated to rockstar status in his rousing but ultimately unsuccessful Texas Senate campaign last year, Beto O'Rourke sought seclusion in January, postponing a reckoning about his political future.

As other Democrats piled into the 2020 presidential race, the punk musician-turned-political-phenomenon kicked off a solitary adventure driving across the American Southwest and, unafraid of laying bare his doubts and deliberations, posted brooding online dispatches and observations from the road.

"Have been stuck lately. In and out of a funk," he wrote.

But despite that come down after a tighter-than-expected race against Republican Senator Ted Cruz last November, the 46-year-old was catapulted to national prominence, prompting feverish will-he-or-won't-he speculation about a 2020 White House bid.

O'Rourke ended that guesswork Thursday when he announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination and the opportunity to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020.

Just two years ago O'Rourke was an under-the-radar congressman with few political accomplishments to his name but passion to burn.

His alluring rejection of status quo politics, including a pledge to eschew corporate or political action committee money, ultimately inspired supporters in Texas and beyond to help O'Rourke raise mountains of campaign cash, the vast majority from personal donations.

While centering his 2018 campaign in grassroots activism, he reflected a movement of political inclusion and engagement, all the while apparently campaigning without pollsters, relying on an affable personality and his raw political instincts.

"I have a good sense of who we are, and we're not a people who make our decisions based on fear," O'Rourke told AFP in Dallas last September. "We're not afraid of the future."

He captured the imagination of some of America's most potent cultural stars like Beyonce, who wore a "Beto" cap on Instagram for her 125 million followers.

"The only way for us to live up to the promise of America is to give it our all and to give it for all of us," O'Rourke said Thursday morning in a video announcing his run for the White House.

- Obama's 'heir'? -

Tall, energetic and charismatic, the man who nearly everyone calls Beto can command a campaign stage, spreading out his lanky arms or tapping his chest as he points to the horizon.

Over a relentless 20-month Senate campaign that took him to all 254 counties in Texas, he honed a stump speech that oozed post-partisan inspiration and appeal for common ground that recalled the grand optimistic vision of America promoted a decade ago by Barack Obama.

After O'Rourke's breakout performance, columnist Elizabeth Bruenig wrote in The Washington Post that some well-positioned Democrats were already treating Beto as "heir apparent to Barack Obama's empty throne."

Such exaltation may be premature, but Trump is mindful of the hype.

During a February speech on border security in O'Rourke's hometown of El Paso, across the river from Mexico, the president branded the Democrat "a young man who's got very little going for himself -- except he's got a great first name."

Trump's visit to Beto's home turf only seemed to lift the Democrat, who hosted a packed nearby rally of his own, foretelling a potential showdown between the president and a challenger 26 years his junior.

"Tonight, we will meet lies and hate with the truth and a positive, inclusive, ambitious vision for the future," O'Rourke told his supporters.

- 'Nothing to lose' -

Robert Francis O'Rourke was born and raised in El Paso. After graduating from Columbia University, where he pursued a passion for punk rock and doing odd jobs in New York, he returned to Texas and started a software company.

At age 32 he won a seat on the El Paso City Council, followed by six years in Congress.

O'Rourke has been an astute student of social media, often posting videos of his wife and their three young children.

But his open-book style has occasionally raised eyebrows, as when he live-streamed his January dentist visit, an event that was supposed to focus on immigration policy but invited prompt ridicule by Republicans.

His spontaneity could prove a tremendous asset, as it did when he offered a robust defense of black American football players who kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

While he made a point of reaching out to Texans of all ideological stripes, O'Rourke on the campaign trail maintained a liberal agenda that would make most Republicans squirm.

He has called for Trump's impeachment, supports expanding health care to all Americans, and wants a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.

But as a congressman O'Rourke was more politically cautious, joining the House's centrist, pro-business New Democrat Coalition.

Beto's 2018 campaign showed a candidate appearing to enjoy himself.

He could be seen skateboarding between events. He jammed onstage with country music legend Willie Nelson, and pledged to "listen to everyone, regardless of the differences."

In a new documentary on his improbable Senate campaign, "Running with Beto," the rising star offered sage advice for candidates like himself: "Run like there's nothing to lose."