Castro, O'Rourke enter first debate with much to prove

By Patrick Svitek
© 2018 The Texas Tribune

Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

MIAMI - One started his campaign early as an underdog and has remained that way. The other launched his campaign later with high expectations that have since faded.

Months later, the two Democratic presidential candidates from Texas are entering the first primary debate with more in common than they once had: mired in the low single digits in most polls and searching for a breakthrough as the media spotlight remains fixed on several other candidates. Some of those other contenders — such as frontrunner Joe Biden — won't even share the stage with Castro and O'Rourke on Wednesday night, the first of two 10-candidate debates here to accommodate the massive field.

Still, the Texans are determined to show Wednesday night that their campaigns have grown — and to make the most of their widest audience yet.

"This is a big moment," Castro told reporters Sunday in Miami in the run-up to the debate. "This is the first debate. More people are gonna tune in probably at this moment than at any point before in this campaign cycle, and there are a lot of voters that haven't been paying attention, and this will be an opportunity for me to reach those voters in a way that I haven't been able to so far."

Both men arrived in Florida days ahead of the debate, which is set for 9 p.m. Wednesday at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. O'Rourke kicked off his visit to the state by unveiling a veterans plan and holding a roundtable on it Monday in Tampa. The next day, he was in Miami for a town hall hosted by the American Federation of Teachers as part of its 2020 endorsement process.

O'Rourke, often loathe to discuss the mechanics of campaigning, pointed to the events themselves when asked after each how he was preparing for the debate.

"You're seeing it," O'Rourke told reporters after the AFT town hall. "I can think of no better way to prepare for that debate — and the conversation we want to have with America — than by listening to people and having a conversation here at North Miami Middle School."

Both Texans have acknowledged an obvious challenge of the debate: efficiently conveying their messages on a crowded stage. The 10 candidates on each night will have 60 seconds to answer questions and half that time to respond to follow-ups.

As a result, Castro said his preparation has centered on "how to compellingly deliver a message within one minute," noting the candidates have become accustomed to forums where they can "take anywhere from two to five minutes to answer a question." On Wednesday night, he added, "you don't have that kind of time."

"It's gonna be tough, right?" said O'Rourke, whose sprawling sentences have tested time limits before. "We've got 60 seconds to respond to some of the biggest questions that are on the minds of the American people right now."

O'Rourke brings far more recent debate experience than Castro, whose last campaign was in 2013 for re-election as San Antonio mayor. As the U.S. Senate nominee last year in Texas, O'Rourke was generally viewed as holding his own in two debates against Republican incumbent Ted Cruz, a college debate champion, even walking away with a few memorable moments.

Gone are the heady days of the Senate race, though, as O'Rourke seeks to get his mojo back after entering the presidential race to much fanfare in March. He has made adjustments along the way — including his decision to do more national media appearances last month — but it does not appear they have paid off yet, at least in polling. He has brushed off those numbers as too early to take seriously, much like they were at this point in his successful 2012 U.S. House bid and his long-shot U.S. Senate campaign, which Cruz ultimately won by less than 3 percentage points.

Castro, meanwhile, has consistently registered at 1% or 2% in most surveys, and he had to make an effort to reach the 65,000 donors required by the Democratic National Committee to effectively guarantee a spot in the debate. Eager for an edge, his campaign has put an emphasis on being the first to prioritize certain issues — like immigration, his debut policy plan — or go where no other candidate has gone — like Flint, Michigan, the site of an ongoing water crisis.

While they may be closer in the horse race than they were before, there are still key differences between the two Texans' campaigns. For one, O'Rourke has been a much stronger fundraiser — one of the best in the entire field last quarter — which has allowed him to build an increasingly large and experienced organization in his home base of El Paso as well as in the first few early voting states.

While the Texans' campaigns have taken different trajectories to Miami, supporters of both hope the debate shines a light on what they see as an underrated asset: policy expertise.

"[Castro] has been as detailed in his policy proposals as any other candidate, including [U.S. Sen.] Liz Warren, who has been getting most of the credit for being substantive," said state Rep. Rafael Anchia of Dallas, who has endorsed Castro. "His policy proposals — not only the detail but the frequency of the policy proposals — he can go toe to toe with anybody on that."

The policy emphasis has been particularly helpful for O'Rourke, who was mocked early on for being light on details but has since rolled out eight proposals in the last two months while building out a heavyweight policy staff in El Paso. His supporters hope the debate will finally put to rest the notion that he is anything but a substantive candidate.

"What we've all been chomping at the bit for is to get to the debate stage, so this guy who was criticized very early on for lacking policy depth can show he has rolled out more policy than anybody else in the field," said Boyd Brown, a former South Carolina state lawmaker and an early O'Rourke supporter. "This whole bullshit narrative that Elizabeth Warren is the only policy expert in the field is bunk."

Brown advised O'Rourke — or any candidate — against using the first debate to give attention to an opponent at the expense of touting his or her own ideas. Somebody like Biden, the high-polling former vice president, "has got nowhere to go but down, and we've got nowhere to go but up," Brown said, referring to O'Rourke's supporters.

In recent weeks, O'Rourke has not hesitated to criticize Biden — over his since-reversed support for the Hyde Amendment, whether he represents a "return to the past" and most recently, over his controversial comments waxing nostalgic about working with segregationist senators. Asked Tuesday if it would be appropriate to criticize another candidate on the debate stage, O'Rourke chuckled and said he guesses "anything goes" in politics but otherwise suggested his focus would be on a positive, forward-looking message.

Castro, meanwhile, has largely steered clear of mixing it up his Democratic opposition, including during a Fox News town hall earlier this month in Phoenix where the Trump-friendly network teed up ample opportunities.

"I don’t want to distract right now by talking about other candidates when the fact is that I need to introduce myself to a lot of people who don’t know who I am yet in this Democratic primary," said Castro, who began his campaign in January. "And so I don’t want them to know who Joe Biden is and what he stands for with this airtime. I want them to know what Julián Castro believes and what he thinks."

Despite their shared roots in Texas, there has not been much interplay between Castro and O'Rourke for most of the race. That has changed a little recently as Castro has leaned into his signature immigration idea: decriminalizing illegal border crossings, instead making them a civil offense. Castro's early support for that idea, which he announced in April, got renewed attention Tuesday when Warren announced she, too, had decided to adopt the position.

O'Rourke has expressed unease with going that far, questioning whether decriminalizing border crossings would undermine the prosecution of criminals like drug smugglers and human traffickers. Castro, in a TV interview Sunday, said there are other legal mechanisms to bring those people to justice and that he was "disappointed" in O'Rourke's stance.

In any case, the slight scuffle illustrates the premium that all candidates are putting on distinguishing themselves in the massive field — on policy, or even just at the numerous cattle calls they've already had where audiences have been exhausted by the never-ending lineup. O'Rourke found an advantage in that category over the weekend at the South Carolina Democratic Party convention, where he punctured the mid-afternoon monotony by bursting into the hall with supporters marching behind him and eschewing the podium favored by his competitors for the ground in front of the stage.

Still, the Texans are learning that even if they make genuine moves to stand out, there is no guarantee that media coverage will follow — or that one of their 20-some competitors has not already beaten them to the punch. On Sunday, O'Rourke's campaign announced he would follow up the debate with a visit Thursday morning to a controversial migrant detention center in Homestead, Florida, saying he "will be the first presidential candidate to visit the site."

On Tuesday morning, though, one of O'Rourke's opponents, U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, sent word to reporters: He had already gone.

© 2018 The Texas Tribune