Julián Castro (center) walks to his seat at the roundtable conversation hosted by San Antonio Hispanic Journalists. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Presidential candidate Julián Castro will work to convince next week’s national television audience during the third Democratic primary debate that he can both achieve and build on President Barack Obama’s past electoral success.

Though Castro trails frontrunners Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) by double digits in the polls, the former San Antonio mayor suggested his campaign expects to remain competitive heading into next year’s early primaries and caucuses, beginning with Iowa and New Hampshire.

“I think I’ve done well in the first two debates; people are coming to know who I am and what I stand for,” Castro said Thursday at a roundtable with reporters attending the Excellence in Journalism conference in San Antonio. “This campaign has gotten stronger and stronger as more people know about my vision for the future of the country. … We’re reaching out to more and more people across the country, and these debates are the biggest opportunity to do it.”

Castro’s past two successful debate performances this summer helped him to surpass the fundraising qualification of more than 130,000 unique donors and 400 unique donors in at least 20 states as well as the polling threshold of 2 percent in four polls to eke out a berth in the Sept. 12 debate in Houston.

Unlike the previous two debates, when a field of 20 qualified candidates was divided into separate debate stages on different nights, this one will comprise just 10 candidates: Biden, Sanders, Warren, Sen. Cory Booker, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Castro, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, and Andrew Yang.

Castro’s polling average hovers around 1 percent, according to RealClearPolitics‘ aggregate polling data. He trails Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who was controversially excluded from the upcoming debate, by 0.4 percentage points, according to the data.

The primary has begun to enter a serious phase – where the stakes on the debate stage and on the campaign trail are extremely high. Candidates Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington; Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand; and John Hickenlooper, the former Colorado governor who now will run for U.S. Senate, all have dropped out of the race.

Castro, who served as housing and urban development secretary under Obama from 2014 to 2017, said he will make the point to next Thursday’s national audience that he is the candidate best equipped to gain back the electoral votes – in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan – that Democrats lost in the 2016 defeat to Donald Trump.

“People should see that I’m the best candidate to reassemble the Obama coalition,” he said, adding that he has sights set on picking up electoral votes in Florida (29), Arizona (11), and Texas (38). “I don’t believe there’s another candidate in this race that can assemble the Obama coalition as forcefully and then take it to the next level as I can.”

After positive reviews on his debate performances brought national attention to what had arguably been an unglamorous campaign and new donors to a comparatively modest campaign purse, Castro seems to be facing another plateau in momentum. Headlines in recent days have painted the candidate’s campaign as at a crossroads: Castro has been “drowned out,” according to Politico; he’s the “forgotten man” in the race, per the National Review; and he’s trailing O’Rourke in support among Texas Latinos, according to a recent poll.

Despite the increasingly tough odds to win the Democratic nomination, Castro said his focus remains on becoming president. He has not contemplated what his next steps would be should he lose.

“I am focused on winning,” Castro said. “Of course, I recognize winning is something that happens. I’ve lost an election before. But I’m not thinking about that right now. I haven’t thought about what I am going to do if I’m not successful. I’m trying to work as hard as I can to be successful, and I’m going to keep my focus on that.”

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.