Beto O'Rourke poses with supporters at Gilbert Garza Park.
Beto O'Rourke poses with supporters at Gilbert Garza Park during last fall's U.S. Senate campaign. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The cities were Keokuk, Fort Madison, and Burlington, but they could have been Waco, Kerrville, and Pearland.

Making his debut Thursday in Iowa, hours after announcing his presidential campaign, Beto O’Rourke all but picked up where he left off in his blockbuster U.S. Senate run last year, bringing his off-the-cuff, frenetic campaign style to the towns that outline the Mississippi River. It was a return to form for O’Rourke, who has made ample public appearances in recent weeks but few that allowed him to practice the retail-heavy politics that animated his bid against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

If the style wasn’t new, the setting certainly was.

“This is my first time to ever visit Iowa,” O’Rourke declared Thursday morning inside a coffee shop in Keokuk, where he kicked off the three-day Iowa swing.

Among other things, it was a reminder that O’Rourke eschewed the usual treks potential presidential candidates often make to the first-in-the-nation caucus state – or any other early voting state, for that matter – as he mulled a 2020 bid in the wake of his closer-than-expected loss to Cruz. Many of his rivals have already logged multiple trips to the state and made multiple hires, though if the reception O’Rourke got Thursday was any indication, he has not yet missed his moment.

“At this point, I’d still say it’s an open field,” said Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. “There’s a lot of people out there who are waiting to see what happens. … A lot of people still want to get to know these candidates.”

Over five stops Thursday, O’Rourke easily filled venues and even drew such a crowd at a Burlington coffee shop that he had to hop on the counter in order to speak to everyone, including those spilling out on to the sidewalk. He ended the day with a house party in Muscatine that hit capacity and left dozens of people watching from the porch.

O’Rourke’s itinerary cut across several counties in southeast Iowa that former President Barack Obama won in 2012 but Donald Trump flipped in 2016 – a deliberate move by O’Rourke to make an inclusive effort in the state much like he did in Texas. He cited his relative success in the traditionally red state – as well as his status as the only presidential candidate from the border – when confronted with questions about his unique qualities Thursday.

But most of all Thursday, O’Rourke sounded just like he did during the Senate race, extolling broad themes and shared principles around issues like immigration, health care and climate change. He even used some of the same anecdotes that were a staple of his stump speeches by the end of the Senate race, such as the Texas teacher who died from the flu last year after being unable to afford medication.

He did venture into some newer territory, entertaining a question in Burlington about overhauling the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court in the face of Republican gamesmanship with judicial nominations. He said it was worth exploring ideas such as adding more justices to the court and replacing the current system of lifetime appointments with term limits.

Asked about reparations for slavery, an issue that has been at the forefront of the primary in recent week, O’Rourke regaled the Muscatine house party with an eloquent reflection on systemic racism in the country but was ultimately inconclusive on the original question.

“I want to make sure that this country has this conversation,” he said.

O’Rourke started the day vowing in his 2020 announcement video to run a “positive campaign,” and he held firm on that in the ensuing hours. He turned away reporters’ efforts to get him to contrast himself with other candidates, much like he did for most of the Senate race when offered opportunities to criticize Cruz.

Inside the Keokuk coffee shop, one of O’Rourke’s biggest applause lines came when he swore off intra-party fighting, insisting that “any single Democrat today would be far better than the current occupant of the White House.” At his next stop, in Fort Madison, he professed ignorance when a questioner alluded to fellow Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders as the “kooky guy” also appealing to young people.

“I actually don’t know how you’re referring to,” O’Rourke said, “but that’s not important.”

Still, it was not all adulation as O’Rourke’s Iowa swing got underway. In Fort Madison, O’Rourke fielded a question from an audience member who wondered whether O’Rourke was experienced enough to be president after three terms in the U.S. House. O’Rourke responded by pointing to what he did before getting to Congress in 2012: starting a web design company and then serving six years on the El Paso City Council.

“I may have not served forever” in the House, O’Rourke said, “but I’ve served in other ways.”

Of course, O’Rourke is playing on a much bigger stage now, and there was more than one reminder of that Thursday. He drew the attention of  Trump, who ridiculed the gesticulating O’Rourke’s “hand movement” in his announcement video and questioned whether he was “crazy, or is that just the way he acts?”

It was that same energy that endeared O’Rourke to some voters Thursday.

“I want somebody who’s got a good message and the energy to get it across and a chance to actually make it work – and win,” said Patrice Jordan, a 66-year-old retiree who came to see O’Rourke in Fort Madison. “You see, we’ve got to win, and I think he’s got a chance – a really good chance – to win.”

Jordan had asked O’Rourke a question about his interest in southeast Iowa given that he’s the “hottest ticket right now,” and she was not the only Iowan who had O’Rourke’s star power top of mind as he introduced himself to the state. In Burlington, there was Laura Blanchard, a local Democrat who unsuccessfully ran for county office last year and recalled following O’Rourke’s race as closely as her own on Election Night.

“Everybody was just as excited for his Senate race as we were for the numbers coming in in Iowa,” she told the packed Beancounter Coffeehouse, “and I think that this crowd here today shows that that excitement has continued.”

Avatar photo

Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

Patrick Svitek is the primary political correspondent for The Texas Tribune and editor of The Blast, the Tribune's subscription-only daily newsletter for political insiders.