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In Iowa, Beto O'Rourke Finds Voters Receptive, But Undecided This Early In The Race

Julia Reihs
Beto O'Rourke attends a criminal justice rally at the Texas Capitol in August.

Beto O’Rourke has begun the long process of introducing himself to potential voters in Iowa.

The former congressman from El Paso, who officially announced his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination Thursday, made several stops throughout the state over the past few days. Candidates often give Iowa special attention because it's the first state in the nation to hold a presidential-nominating contest.

O’Rourke entered the national spotlight after running a closely watched U.S. Senate race against incumbent Ted Cruz last year. He lost the race by a thin margin – 2.6 percentage points. His enthusiastic campaign caught the attention of voters like Sandy Gunter, who traveled from Peoria, Ill., to see the candidate at one of his stops in North Liberty, Iowa.

“He did wonderful against that lunatic down there,” she said. “He was a super energetic young guy.”

Despite the national attention he received for his Senate race, though, many voters in Iowa said they didn't know enough to form an opinion of him.

“I’ve heard about him; I’ve seen him,” said Liz Welsh, who was traveling through the Midwest from Kansas with her husband, Peter. “[But] I can’t really put together anything I can tell you about whether I think he is an attractive candidate or not.”

Credit Ashley Lopez / KUT
O'Rourke runs in a 5K race in North Liberty, Iowa, on Saturday.

Welsh said she and her husband were curious about O'Rourke, so they decided to stop to see him as he ran a 5K early Saturday morning.

“He is kind of a character,” she said. “He’s got a kind of charisma that is interesting, and I wanted to see it firsthand.”

Like many other people in Iowa, Gunter said she’s interested in O’Rourke, but is looking at other candidates, too.

“I wait for the dust to settle, quite frankly,” she said. “He’s up there, [but] I am still undecided at this point.”

Lisa Hurley, who drove down with Gunter from Peoria, said “it’s too early to tell” whether she'll vote for O’Rourke. After all, the Iowa caucus is about a year away, and so far, more than a dozen Democrats have announced they're seeking the presidential nomination.

“There’s too many in the field, but he’s definitely got my eye,” she said.

O’Rourke is now several weeks – months, in some cases – behind other candidates who announced their campaigns earlier in the year. Many had already made several trips to Iowa before O’Rourke even announced.

O’Rourke drew some crowds in Iowa, but he also had some stumbles.

During early stops in the state, O’Rourke routinely joked that his wife has been raising their three children "sometimes with my help."

After some criticism, O’Rourke said in a recording of the podcast Political Party LIVE! in Cedar Rapids that he was wrong for making the jokeand vowed to be more thoughtful going forward.

During an event in Dubuque – the last stop in his initial three-day swing through the state – O’Rourke acknowledged he was learning along the way.

“I am only three days in and it has made me a better candidate than when I started,” he told the crowd. “I will take your stories and your questions, your constructive criticism, to heart and try to be better yet still.”

When asked, many voters said they weren’t concerned that O’Rourke is relatively inexperienced compared to other high-profile candidates like Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, who are all current senators.

“I don’t know that there’s really any way to prepare for that job,” said Joanie McDonough, who lives in Dubuque.

Much like other Iowans, McDonough said she is looking at a couple candidates. She said her main priority is backing a candidate who can unite the country.

“I think that’s important because our country is so divided,” she said. “A house divided falls, right?”

McDonough’s husband, Chris, said he's simply looking for “someone who can beat Trump.”

John Gillespie, who lives in Iowa City, stopped by to see what O’Rourke was like during his morning run earlier in the day. He said he thinks O’Rourke might have the ability to rise above some of the dirtier politics and that O’Rourke has a rare ability to draw people in and connect with them.

“He’s got something that people pay attention to,” Gillespie said. “So, who knows, you know? I don’t know more than anyone else with a vote. But I know what makes me want to support somebody, and I think Beto is worthy of attention.”

Before hopping into a car on his way to Wisconsin for another campaign event, O’Rourke said gaining the votes of Iowans will take time.

He said he’s heard from voters who say they haven’t made up their minds yet and expect to see him back in Iowa.

“I want to be very respectful to that, come back to this state, travel here as extensively as I can, go to every part of Iowa and listen to everyone,” he said. "I think it’s the only way to win here, and it’s also the best way to serve – is getting the perspective and the wisdom and the benefit of everyone’s experience, wherever they are in Iowa or in America.”

Ashley Lopez covers politics and health care. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AshLopezRadio.
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