Alex Seitz-Wald and Garrett Haake and Maura Barrett
Jul 21st 2019 8:00AM
EL PASO, Texas — Beto O'Rourke has gone from phenom to front-runner to flailing in five months, and so he came home to this dusty border town last week to regroup, prepare for the next debate, and try to recast himself as the underdog in a Democratic presidential race in which many have already counted him out.
O'Rourke says that he doesn't plan to change his freewheeling style much, but that a top priority now is to raise the money to keep building his campaign organization so it will be ready to rebound.
"If you remember in Texas, it didn't happen overnight," O'Rourke told NBC News of his Senate race last year against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. "It was a really long process that was against the odds, very often counted down and out."
He said of the current Democratic primary, "I think it's a really small minority of Americans who have made up their mind and maybe a relatively small minority of Americans who are paying close attention."
RELATED: Beto O'Rourke through his political career
Beto O'Rourke throughout his political career
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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Dark horse is a mantel O'Rourke has worn well for most of his political career, from his early campaigns for City Council here and for Congress, both against entrenched incumbents in Democratic primaries, to his long shot bid against Cruz that made him a national star, even though he lost.
But the "Betomania" fever broke not too long after O'Rourke entered the 2020 presidential race.
The opening last week of his first field office in Texas, a state crucial to his path forward, was a homecoming of sorts.
"Given the moment that we're in, this would try the faith of any single one of us," he said of the state of the country, but perhaps also of his campaign.
Surrounded by family, friends and longtime supporters, O'Rourke stood next to — rather than on top of, as has been his attention-grabbing custom — a chair brought out for him and reminded those assembled that they had once helped him beat a Border Patrol agent-turned congressman who was backed by Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
"We took on the incumbent and we took on the odds and we did it together," he said. "A come-from-behind underdog victory, against the polls. Counted out, some counted us down, but we believed in each other and we made it happen."
It wasn't only a message about what he did then, but about what he needs to do now.
It's a long way from the heady days of March, when he was drawing bigger crowds than President Donald Trump at their dueling rallies on the border and making Iowa voters believe they were witnessing history.
But his early missteps — a widely mocked Vanity Fair cover, a joke about his wife staying home with the kids that he had to apologize for, a flip-flop on "Medicare for All," all of which happened on his first day in the race — all helped fuel a backlash.
Now, some of his supporters on Twitter can sound a bit like Trump fans, blaming the media for building O'Rourke up in 2018 only to tear him down in 2019. "We all know about the corporate media and they have their favorites, that's clear," Josh Simmons, a former field organizer on O'Rourke's Senate campaign, said.
O'Rourke's standing in the polls and fundraising have both plummeted. And his performance in the first Democratic debate last month was widely panned, when some wondered how he could take on Trump if he couldn't fight back against the little-known fellow Texan Julián Castro.
"I hope he doesn't run out of money and have to drop out," supporter Eugenio Morales said. "I hope he gets another magic moment."
Still, there are assets that stop some Democrats from declaring it's over.
"It's that energy that he has, that tenacity," Paul de La Peña, a local talk radio host in El Paso and O'Rourke friend, said.
But a comeback won't be easy.
"The problem with being the shiny new thing is that another shiny new thing will come along," said Grant Woodard, a veteran Iowa Democratic operative who is not aligned with any candidate. "In this primary, there's literally something for everybody. What is your message, other than I'm young, I'm fresh?"
Allies point to several factors they say are working in O'Rourke's favor: A work ethic at retail politicking second to none; raw political talent and a celebrity aura, though diminished; one of the biggest email fundraising lists in the field; and an ability to speak about race and immigration, thanks to his political upbringing in a city that is 80 percent Hispanic.
O'Rourke is still drawing relatively large crowds in Iowa -- some 125 at Sioux City and another 100-plus in Sioux Center this weekend -- and his campaign just opened 11 new field offices in the state, where he's well on his way to visiting all 99 counties.
"Obviously we are going to need more resources for the national effort, but Iowa is a top priority for this campaign," Norm Sterznbach, the O'Rourke campaign Iowa director, said.
The campaign also hopes to make a major play for delegate-rich Texas, which votes early in the primary process next year. The state hasn't been polled in over a month, but O'Rourke was in second place behind former Vice President Joe Biden in early June.
First, though, O'Rourke will need a much better performance in the second Democratic debate at the end of July on CNN, and he's been spending more time off the road to prep for it than he did before the last faceoff in late June.
"I know that Beto is excited about how he's going to handle the next debate," said Cindy Bernat, a top O'Rourke donor who co-hosted a fundraiser for the candidate in New York City in May and has known him since he was a child. "I think he needs to know how to manage all these people talking over everybody else."
O'Rourke prides himself on being accommodating to opponents, but some allies have been re-watching last year's debate in which he quoted Trump to slam Cruz as "lyin' Ted" and are hoping that he'll show that ferocity again — even though O'Rourke later said he took that attack against Cruz "a step too far."
And despite his sagging fortunes, O'Rourke and his well-regarded campaign manager, Jen O'Malley Dillon, continue to attract top-flight staffers, many of whom were courted by multiple campaigns, to El Paso, where they work out of a headquarters so close to the border they can walk to Mexico for dinner.
There are now at least 120 people on the payroll, according to recent campaign finance filings, including a robust policy team that is now regularly rolling out detailed plans and trying to combat the notion that there is little substance behind O'Rourke's smile that many have likened to the former Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's.
"We're building our team in El Paso slowly but surely ... We're going to grow, and our ability to fundraise is going to grow with it," O'Malley Dillon wrote in a recent memo to supporters.
They'll need the money. His campaign spent almost 150 percent of what it raised in the last quarter, the second-highest "burn rate" of any candidate in the field.
NBC News asked O'Rourke why voters should give him a second look when there are so many other candidates to choose from?
"That's going to be their decision," he said. "My choice is to make myself present in my communities, to go where they are. And not to write anybody off or count anybody down."