Beto O’Rourke Tells Rachel Maddow: ‘I Recognize That I Can Do a Better Job’

WASHINGTON — Former Representative Beto O’Rourke said Monday he “can do a better job” of communicating his 2020 campaign message, acknowledging that he must take steps to revive his once-promising presidential bid after seeing his polling dip in recent weeks.

Appearing on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show, Mr. O’Rourke said that after two months in the race, and “more than 150 town halls,” he recognized he had to broaden his strategy to appeal to a national audience and not only the voters and news media at his events.

“I have an opportunity to answer your questions, Rachel, and address those who may not have been able to attend them and make sure that they can hear what this campaign is about and how I answer the questions that are put to me,” he said. “So I hope that I’m continuing to do better over time.”

It was a striking concession from Mr. O’Rourke, whose surprisingly strong challenge against Senator Ted Cruz of Texas last year vaulted him into national prominence and won him high expectations when he entered the presidential race.

[Check out our tracker of the 2020 Democratic candidate field.]

But after his highly anticipated debut, and a strong surge of fund-raising that accompanied it, Mr. O’Rourke has struggled in this sprawling Democratic field to replicate the energy that infused his Senate bid. He has often sounded like the candidate from Texas he once was, rather than a White House hopeful, while sprinkling his stump speech with anecdotes from the Senate race. And his polling has sagged, both in national surveys and in the leadoff nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Now Mr. O’Rourke is all but acknowledging that he must reset his presidential candidacy. In addition to making his first appearance on Ms. Maddow’s show as a White House hopeful, Mr. O’Rourke is scheduled to appear on “The View” on Tuesday, and this month he will also participate in a CNN town hall in Iowa.

“I recognize that I can do a better job, also, of talking to a national audience beyond the town halls we are having,” he said after Ms. Maddow asked him about an Associated Press article from last weekend about the reintroduction of his campaign.

At the same time, Mr. O’Rourke made a case for himself, arguing that he could help fulfill the longstanding Democratic goal of putting Texas into play.

“Texas and its 38 Electoral College votes have been unlocked,” he said. “They are in contention, and we will have a seat at the table.”

[Check out the election calendar: Iowa votes first next year and the first debate is next month.]

Facing largely friendly questions from Ms. Maddow after an initial inquiry about his campaign’s difficulties, Mr. O’Rourke took aim at President Trump, calling his foreign policy “a complete disaster” and accusing him of seeking “to cover up or obstruct justice.”

His new interview strategy amounts to an admission that this primary is taking place as much on television and social media as it is at the town halls and coffee shop visits that he live-streamed in his Senate campaign and that he perhaps assumed would translate in the presidential race.

Mr. O’Rourke, who bridled last month when he was asked at an event in Virginia why he was not on television more, is hardly alone in bowing to the new format. The televised candidate forums and town halls have become highly watched events among the most engaged voters; it was Pete Buttigieg’s CNN town hall in March that elevated the South Bend mayor’s campaign among many voters and activists.

Yet Mr. O’Rourke is not only shifting his campaign style. He is also attempting to broaden his appeal with more specific policy proposals: His first was a sweeping plan to address climate change, and he has taken steps to professionalize his campaign.

His campaign manager, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, settled at his El Paso headquarters this month and has installed Jeff Berman to run Mr. O’Rourke’s delegate strategy. Both Ms. O’Malley Dillon and Mr. Berman are veterans of former President Barack Obama’s campaigns. And on Monday, Mr. O’Rourke held his first major fund-raiser of the campaign, appearing with supporters in New York City.

But his interview illustrated how much his political stock has fallen: He did not appear until 35 minutes into the program, well after Ms. Maddow delivered her usual monologue.

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