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Beto O'Rourke formally kicks off 2020 campaign with Texas rallies

Beto O'Rourke's campaign kick-off

Beto O'Rourke formally kicked off his presidential campaign with three rallies across his home state of Texas, where he came close enough to upsetting Republican Sen. Ted Cruz to generate the national buzz now buoying his 2020 White House bid.

The Democratic ex-congressman held a Saturday rally mere blocks from the U.S.-Mexico border in his native El Paso, then traveling to historically black Texas Southern University in Houston before an evening event in the shadow of Austin's state Capitol. He stood on a dais surrounded by supporters holding signs and flags, who would occasionally break out in chants of "Beto, Beto!"

O'Rourke emphasized the multicultural nature of El Paso, calling it a "city of asylum seekers and immigrants." His speech was in direct contradiction to rallies with President Trump, who has made building a wall on the southern border the signature promise of his administration.

O'Rourke promised to help Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children. However, he also indicated support for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which some Democrats have called for abolishing.

O'Rourke also pointed to his Senate campaign as evidence that Texas was becoming a more Democratic-leaning state.

Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke, his wife Amy and their children attend a kickoff rally on the streets of El Paso
Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke, his wife Amy and their children react during a kickoff rally on the streets of El Paso, Texas, U.S., March 30, 2019. JOSE LUIS GONZALEZ / REUTERS

"This state and its 38 electoral votes count like they have never counted before," O'Rourke said, his voice raspy from strain. He also outlined his platform from that of Mr. Trump's.

"For too long in this country, the powerful have maintained their privilege at the expense of the powerless," O'Rourke said, accusing the president of campaigning on "fear and division" in order to make Americans "angry and afraid."

"Let's agree: before we are anything else, we are Americans first," O'Rourke said. He listed policy priorities like universal health care, although he indicated that he does not support eliminating private health insurance, distinguishing himself from candidates who support Medicare-for-All like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. He called for improving education and paying teachers better wages, as well as strengthening unions.

O'Rourke also addressed racial discrimination, and called for legalizing recreational marijuana, ending cash bail, and "confronting the legacy of slavery and segregation." O'Rourke did not explicitly voice support for reparations.

He compared addressing climate change to Americans rising to the challenge of World War II.

Supporters of Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke are seen ahead of his kickoff rally on the streets of El Paso
Supporters of Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke are seen ahead of his kickoff rally on the streets of El Paso, Texas, March 30, 2019. LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS

"We have to once again reassert our role on the world stage," O'Rourke said. He also briefly spoke in Spanish, to cheers.

In his second rally at Texas Southern University in Houston, O'Rourke focused on lowering the cost of tuition and student loan debt. He also highlighted increasing teacher salaries and overall national wages, including increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

"People from all communities who are struggling, when I talk about those kids who are 10-12 months back, it's kids whose moms cant read to them because of their jobs," O'Rourke said. "We must win fight for $15 an hour. Must make sure, instead of allowing unions to be diminished, that we strengthen them. Make sure they're college ready, and career ready to allow them to have dignity and purpose and real paycheck. "

O'Rourke only mentioned Mr. Trump's name at the very end, when he said the election is not solely about defeating Mr. Trump but also uniting the country. 

O'Rourke held his third rally in Austin, with the state Capitol building as a backdrop, and where O'Rourke nearly 74 percent of the vote in his losing campaign for Senate against Ted Cruz. 

In Austin, O'Rourke highlighted some of his policy positions, including debt-free college, universal background checks for guns, legalizing marijuana and reinstating the Voting Rights Act. 

O'Rourke has visited nine states since joining the race on March 14, though he promised to head home for an official launch.

As O'Rourke lost his Senate race, albeit narrowly, and currently holds no political position, some Democrats have questioned whether he has the experience to run for president. He addressed the concerns in an interview with Gayle King on "CBS This Morning" earlier this month.

"I guess it depends on what kind of experience you're looking for," he said. "I've got experience hiring people, creating jobs, developing the economy of the community in which I live. Serving in local government, with Amy helping to raise a family and finding ways to work across the aisle, to get legislation passed even when I'm in the minority party."

A recent poll of Iowa Democrats put O'Rourke in fifth place, behind former Vice President Joe Biden -- expected to join the race in the near future -- and three senators.

In a national Quinnipiac poll of Democratic voters released on Thursday, O'Rourke placed third, behind Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Texas is America's largest red state, but Democrats aren't writing it off in 2020. Another presidential candidate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, drew large crowds at a rally at Texas Southern University last weekend.

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