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“It’s a quiet but disquietingly hot and soupy Saturday afternoon at an outdoor café table in a Charlottesville shopping center, and Beto O’Rourke is staring off to my right, thinking hard about how to respond after I asked him a classic presidential campaign gotcha question: how his day’s been going. “It’s been, uh, it’s been a good day,” he immediately offers, and then falls silent, starting to expand on his answer, and then stopping, several times.
To be fair, it’s not easy to describe anything about O’Rourke these days, whether you’re him or a voter or a reporter, or one of his 19 remaining 2020 rivals, and maybe it shouldn’t be. We were originally supposed to meet during a routine early August political swing through California, where I was going to ask him, among other things, about his tactics for getting his campaign back on track after its steady drop in polling. After all, he’s now down below not just Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but to the level of Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard — the result of a campaign that sometimes felt like a lukewarm imitation of his 2018 race, that left some Texans asking him to return home to run for the Senate again, and that left others simply puzzled by his lack of a clear message or stated reason for running.
That plan went out the window two days before our scheduled interview, when a gunman killed 22 people and injured 24 more, targeting Latinos, in the former congressman’s hometown of El Paso. O’Rourke, 46, left the trail for a while, then returned with a speech there, promising a new kind of uncompromising campaign that more directly, and assertively, and urgently, addressed the danger of Donald Trump and the hate he stirs up around the country, because if “we do not wake up to this threat, then we as a country will die in our sleep.””
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