DES MOINES — For many political candidates, the size of the media entourage following them around Iowa in the months leading up to the caucuses is a measure of their success.
By that benchmark, the Republican National Committee mused, Iowans might be “witnessing the beginning of the end” of Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s 2020 presidential dreams.
But O’Rourke said he wasn’t discouraged that the media horde following him on his recent four-day, 15-event tour of Iowa was smaller than that during his initial trip to the first-in-the-nation caucus state.
“That first morning in Keokuk, if there were 60 people in the room, half of them were members of the press,” O’Rourke said last Sunday after a rally at University of Iowa in Iowa City. “I like that the ratio has changed a little bit as we’ve moved on.”
With fewer reporters and camera crews from national media outlets following him, the former congressman from Texas spoke to local reporters after the rally, answering questions about western Iowa flooding, education funding, workforce housing shortages and what he’s gained from his visits.
It has been a learning experience, he said.
“From the very beginning on the 14th of March in Keokuk to today in Iowa City, I’ve had the chance to meet people, listen to people and introduce myself,” he said after the rally with a crowd his campaign said topped 550. “I’m learning. I’m becoming a better candidate, I hope, and have an opportunity to better serve this country if elected president.”
In Iowa City, O’Rourke demonstrated some of what he’s learned. Wearing a Hawkeye cap, he mentioned eating breakfast at Hamburg Inn No. 2, an iconic Iowa City stop for politicians. He mused about returning for a pie shake before catching a flight back to Texas. He name-dropped U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, mentioning their Capitol gym lockers were next to each other when they served together for six years. And he gave a shout-out to state Sen. Zach Wahls before launching into his prepared remarks.
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Speaking to reporters, O’Rourke pushed back on a question about his lack of specificity on policy issues.
“Showing up, taking questions, learning what’s important to people here” is the process for a candidate, he said, adding, “I’m happy to offer you as much specificity as you would like on any proposal.”
To help flood victims, O’Rourke said he would “speed disaster aid to those farmers beyond what president has done, beyond what Congress is considering” and invest in infrastructure along the Missouri River.
And he outlined key proposals including “Medicare for America” to ensure “that we get to universal, guaranteed high-quality health care by allowing anyone to enroll in Medicare” or, if they want, keep their employer-sponsored plan.
He wants to end the war on drugs, end the prohibition on marijuana and allow people arrested for possession of marijuana — “something legal or decriminalized on most states” — to have their records expunged.
On immigration, O’Rourke said he would “free the Dreamers,” those immigrants who came to the country illegally as children, and make them U.S. citizens.
“So whether it’s health care, whether it’s immigration, whether it’s criminal justice, whether it’s climate, these are important issues I’m learning from those I’m listening to and I’m also showing up with specific policy proposals like those I just offered,” he said.
To pay for his priorities, O’Rourke would “reverse the worst of $2 trillion Trump tax cuts” by raising the corporate tax rate to 25 or 26 percent to generate hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade.
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O’Rourke has been struck by Iowa nice and “how seriously (Iowans) take their responsibility to themselves and the rest of the country.”
And the civility. He recounted how a man at his Morningside College rally in Sioux City was trying to shout him down as he spoke.
“That same man afterward came up and apologized to me, and said ‘Hey, I’m sorry, that’s not the way we should act,’” O’Rourke said. “We were able to have a conversation even though we disagreed.”
Regardless of the media entourage, he said, he hopes to have more conversations.
“I’m really impressed with what I see in Iowa so far,” O’Rourke said.
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