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BOSTON—Beto O’Rourke last week stopped here for beers. He wasn’t hunting big-dollar donors or votes in a state with a meaningful primary. He instead wanted to stand on a box in the middle of a pub and just let it rip. So that’s what he did. The crowd was young, diverse and notably not reaching to write checks, but they were plenty ready to hear his profane riff on his proposed gun buybacks. He downed a Ricochet IPA while answering their questions and then took his place in the picture line and ordered another. Two women joined him in raising their pints. “Salud,” he said.
For a one-time Democratic darling who hasn’t sniffed double digits in the polls for months, this brewery called Backlash didn’t seem like a materially strategic, smart spot to be in the run-up to a debate night that might for him be do-or-die. But O’Rourke’s clearly not doing the obvious anymore.
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In the wake of August 3, when a bigot with an AK-47 murdered 22 people in a Walmart in O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso, the former congressman has changed the way he’s waging his presidential campaign. He’s running with arguably reckless abandon, breaking norms to try to rekindle some lost spark. Beyond his much-discussed uptick in swearing, he has traveled to places that make limited political sense, taken a provocative proposal on assault-style rifles that could permanently jeopardize his electoral viability in his native state, and trashed President Trump with increasingly explicit rhetoric. What’s interesting about O’Rourke at this moment is not just that he’s sayingfucka whole bunch—he’salwaysdropped curse words on the stump—but that he’s entered more broadly a new phase of his 2020 bid, which supporters find inspiring and critics consider desperate to the point of pathetic. Up close, though, it feels actually pretty compelling.
Let’s go ahead and call it Beto’s “fuck-it phase.”
“That’s where I think he’s at now,” Moses Mercado, a Democratic lobbyist from Texas, told me. “He’s like, okay, well,screw it.”
“Eff it,” Austin-based Republican strategist Brendan Steinhauser said.
“He has no fucks to give,” added Jay Surdukowski, an attorney and activist who is one of O’Rourke’s most devoted backers in New Hampshire.
“This feels right to me,” O’Rourke said when I asked him about how he’s currently campaigning when he met with reporters by the stainless-steel beer tanks at Backlash. He said this was “the way politics should be.”
The question lurking behind this caution-free style is whether O’Rourke is doing this because he cares less about his stagnant candidacy or because he in fact cares so much more.
Six months ago, O’Rourke was drawn into this race, it seemed, because of some combination of a sense of entitlement (“… born to be in it …”) along with an irresistible inertia (he did, after all, bring in a record-breaking $80 million in his bid to unseat the unlovable Ted Cruz). After the lengthy will-he-or-won’t-he, the middle-of-America meandering and his overwrought postings on Medium, his entrance prompted a frenzy of live-coverage attention on cable news. Reality bit, alas, and right out of the gate was as good as it got. His fundraising dipped precipitously in the wake of his considerable initial intake. The mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana swiped his new-guy, next-gen fizz. He turned in oddly leaden showings in the first couple debates and languished in a polling position unbudgingly far behind the clear top three and trailing even out-of-nowhere entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
Then, though, came the shooting.
O’Rourke hurried home. He stayed in El Paso for almost two weeks. He listened and gave hugs and attended vigils and silently marched. He called Trump a white supremacist. He called him “the greatest threat to this country.” He couldn’t fathom, he would say, leaving to go to the comparative inconsequence of the “corn dogs and Ferris wheels” of the Iowa State Fair. Anxious, angry and rattled, he was asked by a reporter if there was anything Trump could do to “make this any better.” He answered with a kind of righteous despair that sounded new. But it boiled down to this: “What the fuck?”
By the time he was ready to return to the trail, he did so by saying he could “see more clearly,” and that there was “a way to do this better,” and that one of those ways was to not simply retrace well-trodden, politically prudent early-state paths.
He went to Mississippi to try to shine a spotlight on the recent ICE raids. He went to a gun show in Arkansas. He went to Oklahoma to go to the 1995 bombing memorial and the site of a 1921 race riot and talked abou
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