KEOKUK, Iowa — Newly announced presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke launched the first event of his 2020 campaign on Thursday with an appeal his fellow Democratic candidates not to descend into divisiveness as they attempt to oust President Donald Trump from office.
"Any single Democrat running today — and I may not be able to enumerate every single one of them — would be far better than the current occupant of the White House," the Texas Democrat told a packed coffee house here. "So let's keep this in mind, and we can conduct ourselves in this way every single day for the next 11 months until voting begins here in Iowa."
“Ultimately, we all have to get on board with the same person, because it is fundamental to our chances of success that we defeat Donald Trump in 2020,” O'Rourke added.
Before launching into a litany of answers about his policy ideas, he called the question-and-answer format of his first campaign stop indicative of how he wants to run his campaign.
"This is democracy, and in the spirit of that, I want to make sure that I have the chance to listen to you," O'Rourke said, adding, "If you want to pose the solution to your question, from your perspective, where you live, from how you see things, I am all ears right now. There's no sense in campaigning if you already know every single answer."
O’Rourke then set to discussing his policy plans, saying there is an urgent need to fight climate change and take on corporate interests, endorsing the idea of a “Green New Deal,” and calling for “guaranteed high-quality health care.”
He also repeated his call to legalize marijuana, telling the almost entirely white audience that the war on drugs has mostly hurt people that “do not look like people in this room.”
O’Rourke, who drew national attention and broke fundraising records with his losing campaign against Sen. Ted Cruz last year, announced his presidential run earlier Thursday, entering an already crowded primary field.
The 46-year-old former congressman from El Paso has captivated some in the party with his skateboarding, adventurous road trips shared on social media, and crossover appeal to both moderates and progressives.
In a video announcing his decision, released at 6 a.m. ET, O'Rourke said: "The only way for us to live up to the promise of America is to give it our all and to give it for all of us."
He added: "This is a defining moment of truth for this country, and for every single one of us. The challenges that we face right now; the interconnected crises in our economy, our democracy, and our climate have never been greater. And they will either consume us or they will afford us the greatest opportunity to unleash the genius of the United States of America."
O'Rourke is making his first tour in the 2020 cycle of first-in-the-nation Iowa, where he plans to hold multiple events over several days to chat with voters in Mississippi River towns that have been drifting away from the Democratic Party.
O'Rourke told Vanity Fair in a lengthy cover-story profile published Wednesday, "You can probably tell that I want to run. I do. I think I'd be good at it."
On Saturday, he'll rally with Eric Gidden, the Democrat running in next week's special election for an Iowa state Senate seat, who has received plenty of support from other 2020 Democratic hopefuls.
Last year, O'Rourke narrowly lost a challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, but he won a national following in the process and more votes than any Democrat in Texas history. He raked in a record-breaking $79 million, mostly from small-dollar donors, after rejecting all PAC money.
O'Rourke told NBC affiliate in Dallas-Forth Worth that his 2020 presidential campaign will be much like that 2018 Senate run, which he called “a campaign of people, not PACs.”
"By that same token, this national campaign will be about everyone in every single state of the Union, perhaps especially those who live in places that have been overlooked or forgotten," he said.
O'Rourke also said he decided to run after spending a lot of time with his family after his Senate campaign loss, and "really got to think long and hard about the future of our kids and, by extension, the future of this country. And when we looked out at that, there’s no sitting on the sidelines. There’s no hoping that somebody else can get this done. It’s all of us, all in, with everything that we've got for everyone."
The former punk rocker's Senate campaign drew comparisons to Barack Obama and Robert F. Kennedy, as celebrities and far-away Hollywood liberals fawned over everything from his skateboarding to his bold answer on NFL players kneeling to protesting police violence against African-Americans.
But as presidential speculation swelled after the November election, O'Rourke largely withdrew from the political scene, even as a dozen other Democrats jumped into the race to take on President Donald Trump.
Now, many in the party wonder if O'Rourke missed his moment. Others question how much of O'Rourke's national support last year was driven by liberals' animosity to Cruz, rather than genuine affection for O'Rourke.
And with the most diverse slate of presidential candidates in history, some Democrats have criticized the congressman for rising to a level they say would be unthinkable for a woman or person of color with a resume like his — only three terms in Congress and one losing Senate campaign.
A new documentary about his 2018 campaign premiered last weekend at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, and could help reignite the "Betomania" that swept bluer parts of America.
The large and growing Democratic field already includes Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders, and others like Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and ex-San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, among others. And Joe Biden is expected to announce soon whether he intends to jump in the race.
Alex Seitz-Wald is a political reporter for NBC News.