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Former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke Sees His Presidential Run In Clear Moral Terms


Former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke sees his presidential run in clear moral terms. He talks a lot about President Trump, guns and white nationalism. It's a message that he's found a renewed passion for following the deadly mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso, and it's a message he spoke about at length with the NPR Politics Podcast during a recent campaign swing through Iowa. NPR's Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Beto O'Rourke took a hiatus from the presidential campaign earlier this month. He wanted to help his hometown grieve after a gunman shot and killed 22 people at a Wal-Mart, specifically targeting Latinos. On the stump and in interviews, it is clear the shooting still troubles O'Rourke. Here he is talking to voters in Des Moines.


BETO O'ROURKE: As president, we've got to make sure that we make our number-one law enforcement priority combating white nationalism and white supremacy in this country.


KHALID: This event was called An Iowa Conversation: Standing Up To Trump. O'Rourke says the president has inflamed racial tension. He told us he's really worried about that.


O'ROURKE: And if that continues, I'm confident that we'll lose this country. We really will. And I liken it to being a country that is asleep and a country that will die in its sleep unless it wakes up to the threat that it faces, and that threat very clearly is Donald Trump.

KHALID: O'Rourke is very focused on Trump. When we asked him if that essentially allows the president to define his campaign, he dismissed that idea, but then he went back to a warning about the president.


O'ROURKE: If we don't call this country's attention to the true cost and consequence of Donald Trump, then the blame will be on us - every one of us who was complicit in our silence.

KHALID: This wasn't the only time in our conversation he mentioned to the idea of being complicit. He brought it up again when we asked him why his plan to tackle gun violence explicitly links the violence with white nationalism, and he acknowledged that, yeah, there are a lot of gun deaths that have nothing to do with white supremacy. But he pointed out that a mosque in Texas was burned down after Trump issued his travel ban targeting several Muslim-majority countries, and he reminded us about a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue where the gunman posted anti-Semitic comments online.


O'ROURKE: If I don't connect these dots, then I am complicit in the next mass murder or the next act of domestic terror.

KHALID: O'Rourke entered this race as a sort of political celebrity. He became a darling of the left during the 2014 midterms for his challenge to Republican Senator Ted Cruz. O'Rourke was the underdog, but he lost that race by just 3 percentage points, coming closer to winning a statewide office in Texas than any other Democrat in years. But the attention his upstart Senate campaign generated during the midterms has not translated to a national presidential campaign. Voters have told me they are drawn to his enthusiasm, but they're not sure what he stands for. So we asked him, if he had to prioritize one landmark bill, what would it be?


O'ROURKE: There is no one bill, of course. There is the greatest set of challenges that this country has ever faced.

KHALID: He explained at length that he's concerned about climate change, immigration and health care, but he rejected the notion that there could only be one main priority. Back in March, when O'Rourke declared his presidential candidacy, he raised over $6 million in just 24 hours, but since then, his fundraising has dipped. And he has failed to have a breakout moment on a crowded debate stage, so there's been some pressure on him to drop out and instead run for the U.S. Senate. But O'Rourke says he wants to be president.


O'ROURKE: And I think I have a perspective that is important for this country at this moment.

KHALID: When we asked exactly why he thinks he's the answer this country needs right now, he pointed to his experience in a border city and his campaign in the midterms.


O'ROURKE: We helped to take a state that had ranked 50th in voter turnout, written off as too red and Republican to count, to one that gave us more votes than any Democrat had ever received.

KHALID: Technically, Hawaii has the lowest voter turnout, but Texas is near the bottom, and his point is that he was able to energize voters. The question is whether he can manage energize voters now when he's running against 20 other Democrats, not Ted Cruz.

Asma Khalid, NPR News.

CORNISH: And you can hear the full interview with Beto O'Rourke on the NPR Politics Podcast Feed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.