Well, not quite. But Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who became a national star during his race against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, was given the rock-star treatment during his first campaign stop in Ohio.
Guests crammed a small dive bar to watch him give his stump speech standing atop a table, shouting “O-H-I-O” and “B-E-T-O.” Afterward they swarmed him, pressed close for selfies, and crowded his rented minivan as he tried to drive away. Mr. O’Rourke, by his own admission Monday afternoon, has been in the presidential race all of four and a half days.
“It’s so good to be with you. Thanks to everyone who came out to join us. And thank you especially to those who are just innocently drinking a beer here,” he began.
Minutes later he told the crowd to expect “the biggest grassroots campaign this country has ever seen.”
Mr. O’Rourke is the first high-profile Democrat of the 2020 campaign cycle to plant a flag in Ohio, a swing state that some observers believe has shifted right with Mr. Trump’s eight-point victory in 2016 and the GOP’s midterm sweep.
He started the day in the Detroit area, then swung through northern Ohio on his way to Cleveland. On his way out of town — his next stops are Pennsylvania and New Hampshire — he met with Dave Green, the UAW leader at General Motors’ Lordstown Assembly Plant whom President Trump blamed in a tweet Sunday for the plant’s closure. Mr. Trump will be in northwest Ohio on Wednesday to visit the nation’s last tank manufacturer in Lima.
In an industrial stretch of Cleveland’s Old Brooklyn neighborhood, the former congressman from El Paso stuck to a general Democratic platform, stressing — like the other candidates he’s competing against for the nomination — the imperative to unite the nation and set it on a different track.
“This country has never been more divided, it has never been more polarized. It’s never had more people who didn’t see their future — and most importantly their kids’ future — in this country,” he said. “We need to make sure to see each other not as Democrats or Republicans, not as rural or urban, not as people of different races and religions and immigration status. Before any of those differences count, we see each other as Americans, as human beings.”
It’s still too early in the race for average voters to be picking favorites. But Mr. O’Rourke has shown he can command support out of the gate, raising $6.1 million in his campaign’s first day, beating all other declared Democrats after breaking fund-raising records in his losing Senate race against Mr. Cruz.
“I want whoever wins the Democratic nomination. I don’t care if a cartoon character wins the Democratic nomination,” joked Tom Lasby, a 27-year-old from Cleveland.
Early in his remarks, Mr. O’Rourke mentioned speaking with Sen. Sherrod Brown, the Cleveland Democrat who, until two weeks ago, was considering entering the 2020 field. He said they discussed Lordstown and what can be done to prevent jobs from going overseas, and making sure “we invest in the dignity of work — a phrase that [Mr. Brown] coined, that he owns, that represents and reflects the genius of this community.”
Mr. O’Rourke took questions after calling for income equality, universal background checks on gun purchases, and expunging marijuana possession charges.
Many were curious to see Mr. O’Rourke in the flesh after following his race in Texas, expecting he could emerge as a front-runner in a field with more than a dozen candidates.
“I think it’s going to level out between the ‘Bs’ — Biden, Bernie, and Beto. I think the other candidates aren’t really a factor,” said Thomas Beck, a 48-year-old from Warren, Ohio.
As guests were jostling for another peek at Mr. O’Rourke as he was leaving, Mr. Lasby said he preferred him over a cartoon and plans to follow him as the campaign continues.
“I think the biggest knock was not having clarified policy positions,” he said. “But that could be a result of only being in the race four days.
“It’s very much standard Democratic ticket stuff,” he added. “I like it.”