Beto O'Rourke a threat to Biden on right, Sanders on left

CLEVELAND — By the time Beto O'Rourke arrived at Gino's Cento Anno, a small dive bar popular with union workers, the TVs had been switched off Fox News and Wally Huskonen was ready to hear from someone other than the two men leading every poll of the 2020 Democratic presidential field.

"Biden is too old, and I am speaking as someone near his age," Huskonen, an 81-year-old ex-Republican, said earlier this week of former Vice President Joe Biden, 76, who is all-but-certain to enter the race soon. "Same with Bernie (77 years old). And the way Bernie (Sanders) talks about socialism…it's not the fact that he is talking about it, it's the way he talks about it."

"Beto's theme of bringing people together really resonates with me. This division is very unsettling," Huskonen added.

RELATED: Beto O'Rourke throughout his political career

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Beto O'Rourke throughout his political career
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Beto O'Rourke throughout his political career
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 13: Rep.-elect Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, speaks to reporters after a news conference with democratic members-elect in the Capitol Visitor Center. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
**ADVANCE FOR MONDAY, OCT 31** El Paso City Representatives Steve Ortega, left and Beto O'Rourke pose with a backdrop of Downtown El Paso, Texas, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2005. The two and three other colleagues, all political newcomers under 35, were elected this year to the El Paso city council. The group of young up-and-comers say they took on their public roles to make El Paso the kind of city it should be, the kind it has long struggled to become. (AP Photo/El Paso Times, Victor Calzada)
US Rep. Beto O'Rourke (R), D-TX, speaks during a meeting with One Campaign volunteers including Jeseus Navarrete (L) on February 26, 2013 in O'Rouke's office in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGANWith the United States days away from billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts, anti-poverty campaigners fear that reductions in foreign aid could potentially lead to thousands of deaths. The world's largest economy faces $85 billion in cuts virtually across the board starting on March 1, 2013 unless the White House and Congress reach a last-minute deal ahead of the self-imposed deadline known as the sequester. While the showdown has caused concern in numerous circles, activists are pushing hard to avoid a 5.3 percent cut in US development assistance which they fear could set back programs to feed the poor and prevent disease. 'The sequester is an equal cut across the board, but equal cuts don't have equal impact,' said Tom Hart, US executive director of the One campaign, the anti-poverty group co-founded by U2 frontman Bono. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MAY 23: Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, rides his bike after a democratic congressional baseball practice in Northeast. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - MAY 23: Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, is pictured at a democratic congressional baseball practice in Northeast. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
US Rep. Beto O'Rourke , D-TX, meets with One campaign volunteers on February 26, 2013 in O'Rouke's office in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. With the United States days away from billions of dollars in automatic spending cuts, anti-poverty campaigners fear that reductions in foreign aid could potentially lead to thousands of deaths. The world's largest economy faces $85 billion in cuts virtually across the board starting on March 1, 2013 unless the White House and Congress reach a last-minute deal ahead of the self-imposed deadline known as the sequester. While the showdown has caused concern in numerous circles, activists are pushing hard to avoid a 5.3 percent cut in US development assistance which they fear could set back programs to feed the poor and prevent disease. 'The sequester is an equal cut across the board, but equal cuts don't have equal impact,' said Tom Hart, US executive director of the One campaign, the anti-poverty group co-founded by U2 frontman Bono. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 14: Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, walks down the House steps of the Capitol following the last votes of the week on Friday, June 14, 2013. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
U.S. citizen Edgar Falcon, second from right, and Maricruz Valtierra of Mexico, second from left, laugh while El Paso congressman Beto O'Rourke, right, and Judge Bill Moody, left, congratulate them after the couple was married at U.S.-Mexico border, Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013 in El Paso, Texas. Like many other couples made up of a US citizen and a foreigner, Falcon and Valtierra, who has been declared inadmissible after an immigration law violation, hope immigration reform will help them live together in the U.S. (AP Photo/Juan Carlos Llorca)
Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, stands with his family for a ceremonial photo with Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, left, in the Rayburn Room of the Capitol after the new 113th Congress convened on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, in Washington. The official oath of office for all members of the House was administered earlier in the House chamber. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas., surrounded by border region leaders, human rights experts, and residents, speaks to media on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013., during a news conference to explain what border communities are asking for in the context of immigration reform. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Congressman Beto O'Rourke, center, speaks at a new conference accompanied by Lillian D'Amico, left, mother of a deceased veteran, and Melinda Russel, a former Army chaplain, in El Paso, Texas, Wednesday, June. 4, 2014. A survey of hundreds of West Texas veterans conducted by O'Rourke's office has found that on average they wait more than two months to see a Veterans Affairs mental health professional and even longer to see a physician. (AP Photo/Juan Carlos Llorca)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 29: U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, asks a question of former Army Capt. Debra Gipson during a House Veterans' Affairs Committee, Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee hearing on 'Defined Expectations: Evaluating VA's Performance in the Service Member Transition Process' in the Cannon House Office Building, May 29, 2014, in Washington, DC. Ms. Gipson suffered a severe back injury while en route to Afghanistan. (Photo by Rod Lamkey/Getty Images)
Democratic candidate for the US Senate Beto ORourke addresses his last public event in Austin before election night at the Pan American Neighborhood Park on November 4, 2018 in Austin, Texas. - One of the most expensive and closely watched Senate races is in Texas, where incumbent Republican Senator Ted Cruz is facing Democratic Representative Beto O'Rourke. O'Rourke, 46, whose given names are Robert Francis but who goes by Beto, is mounting a suprisingly strong challenge to the 47-year-old Cruz in the reliably Republican 'Lone Star State.' O'Rourke, a three-term congressman and former member of a punk band, is drawing enthusiastic support from many urban dwellers in Texas while Cruz does better in conservative rural areas. Plucking the Senate seat from Cruz, who battled Donald Trump for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, would be a major victory for the Democratic Party. (Photo by SUZANNE CORDEIRO / AFP) (Photo credit should read SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP/Getty Images)
Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, of El Paso, Texas, speaks at the University of Texas at Dallas Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, in Richardson, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, walks during a protest march in downtown Dallas, Sunday, April 9, 2017. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, left, and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, right, take part in a debate for the Texas U.S. Senate, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018, in San Antonio. (Tom Reel/San Antonio Express-News via AP, Pool)
Texas Congressman Beto ORourke gives his concession speech during the election night party at Southwest University Park in downtown El Paso on November 6, 2018. - After a close race for senate, ORourke conceded to incumbent Ted Cruz in his home town. (Photo by Paul Ratje / AFP) (Photo credit should read PAUL RATJE/AFP/Getty Images)
Former Democratic Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke gestures during a live interview with Oprah Winfrey on a Times Square stage at "Oprah's SuperSoul Conversations from Times Square," Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, in New York. O'Rourke dazzled Democrats in 2018 by nearly defeating Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in the country's largest red state. O'Rourke says he'll announce whether he'll run for president "before the end of the month." (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
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If O'Rourke is to climb in the polls, his campaign minivan is on a collision course with one or both of the other white men atop the field — but which?

While Sanders' allies have worried that O'Rourke could eat into the Vermont senator's base of young progressives, Biden may end up being the one with the most to lose among mainline Democrats more concerned with electability than political revolution.

Instead of shoring up his progressive bona fides in the face of left-flank attacks, O'Rourke has emphasized a Biden-esque message of civility while making a case that he can win the White House by stumping in the very Midwest states that Biden allies argue "Middle-Class Joe" is most capable of carrying.

"Because he generates so much excitement, a lot of people think Beto is a real threat to Bernie Sanders," said Bill Press, a liberal talk radio host who has hosted meetings of Sanders' kitchen cabinet. "Actually, for that very reason, plus the fact that he's closer to Biden than Bernie on the issues, I think Beto's much more of a threat to Joe Biden."

"Some Democrats are asking: If you already have a more exciting, younger, centrist white male in the race, why do you need Joe Biden?" Press said.

O'Rourke might dispute the "centrist" characterization, noting he never backed away from liberal issues while running for Senate last year in Texas against Sen. Ted Cruz. And, as a presidential candidate, he's called capitalism "racist," vocally supported legalizing marijuana and spoken bluntly on immigration.

But those are the B-sides of his message.

The core of O'Rourke's stump speech is about inclusion, sounding more like Biden, who has been dinged by the left for speaking warmly of Republicans, than Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who portray their campaigns as us-versus-them fights against a corrupt political system.

The former Texas congressman has repeatedly declined to call himself a "progressive," saying he doesn't like labels, and refused to adopt ideological litmus-test issues, like Medicare for All.

"Let's make sure that before we are Democrats or Republicans, we see each other as Americans and human beings and treat one another accordingly," O'Rourke said in Cleveland, repeating one of his common refrains.

And O'Rourke, who draws comparisons to Barack Obama on the stump, is even challenging one of Biden's chief assets — his association with the popular former president.

"People underestimate how difficult it is to run from the lead position," said Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis.

"The real challenge for Biden and Sanders," he continued, "is going to be how do they keep people energized and excited about their candidacy, which really puts the onus on their ideas. Whereas for new candidates like Beto and (Kamala) Harris, it can be about their candidacy and their ideas."

Of course, Biden hasn't even entered the race yet and polling at this point is likely on his high name recognition.

"I honestly think it is way too early," said Robert Wolf, the CEO of 32Advisors and a major Democratic donor who advised Obama and has been in touch with both the Biden and O'Rourke camps. "I do think that Beto's launch...from his fundraising intake to his road trip from Iowa to New Hampshire with stops in the 'Blue Wall' states, was quite incredible and you could see the grassroot excitement grow each and every day."

Older white voters who turned out to O'Rourke's events in the midwest nearly universally expressed fondness for Biden, but also concerns about the former vice president, even if they weren't fully sold on O'Rourke.

"I think Biden is smart and a superb human being, but I think we need new ideas," said Carolyn Harryman, who came to O'Rourke's first campaign event in Keokuk, Iowa, and said beating Trump is her biggest concern in 2020.

Sharon Quinn, a 70-year-old retiree from Scranton, Pennsylvania, Biden's hometown, worried what a run would do to the former vice president's family.

"Trump will eviscerate his family, his past, everything. I think he could be an excellent secretary of state, or something like that. We have a lot of fear for him if he runs," she said.

"Beto is a blank slate," Quinn continued. "He has intellectual curiosity and authenticity that we're looking for."

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