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To nerd out or rock out: Democratic voters weigh personality vs. policy in primary race

Campaign 2020 latest

Plymouth, N.H. — Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke spent the past week driving himself to some three dozen events across six states — finding an elevated surface on which to stand at nearly each stop — as part of his "show up everywhere," high-endurance campaign for the presidency.

Meanwhile, Sen. Elizabeth Warren began the week with a nationally televised town hall in Mississippi, part of a methodical campaign swing through southern states to pitch her new affordable housing plan. Her call there to abolish the electoral college set off a national debate and perhaps a new litmus test for her Democratic competitors.

Warren has introduced the most policy proposals into the 2020 presidential contest, including a universal child care program, a tax on the "ultra wealthy," and a plan to break up the big tech companies. But O'Rourke, who launched his campaign last week, raised $6.1 million in the first 24 hours with an average contribution of $48, besting every candidate in the field and far outpacing Warren.

The headlines made by Warren, 69, and O'Rourke, 46, this week highlight a choice that has been particularly vexing for the Democratic Party: whether to go big on policy or personality. But the choice in the 2020 primary has taken on a new dimension, as party voters measure the candidates not so much against one another but against President Donald Trump.

In the early stages of the campaign, Democratic voters have already concluded that defeating Mr. Trump is their first priority. But they are just starting to assess which candidate in the vast Democratic field offers the most effective contrast to the current president.

"I don't think the policy differences between all of them are that vast," said Fred Nemeth, a restaurant owner from Bartlett. "There is an existential threat in the White House and we need to remove that."

Since her first campaign stop earlier this year, Warren has centered the rationale for her candidacy on the economy. "Today in America, a full-time minimum-wage job will not keep a mama and a baby out of poverty," she tells voters of why she is running. She often begins her stump speeches by recalling a scene from her childhood, when her father had a debilitating heart attack that forced her mother to find a minimum wage job at Sears, a job that "saved our house, but more importantly, it saved our family."

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O'Rourke begins his stump speeches by speaking of his home town of El Paso, which he describes as "one of the safest cities of the United States of America — safe not in spite of the fact that we are city of immigrants but safe because we are a city of immigrants." The former congressman built a national profile by running against Ted Cruz for the U.S. Senate last year. And even though he lost, he often invokes that contest as a reason to seek for higher office, noting he came within three points of defeating a Republican in a red Texas and quadrupled young voter turnout in the process.

If Warren, a former Harvard Law professor, is leading the charge on big policy prescriptions in the Democratic primary, O'Rourke sees himself as more of a student, invoking people he meets on the trail and the education they provide him.

"There is a lot to learn and the best way to learn is to listen to those who understand these issues first hand from their their lives," he told CBS News after a stop at Plymouth State University. "And that's why we are showing up everywhere."

While O'Rourke has been criticized for not offering specific proposals of his own — often simply agreeing to ideas suggested by others, or reversing course on previous positions, like means testing for social security — he is not without a platform. During his swing through each of New Hampshire's 10 counties this week, he spoke of the ways in which climate change will eventually create a refugee crisis.

He also backs a ban on assault weapons and supports expanded background checks, as well as universal pre-K. He called for criminal prosecution of pharmaceutical company executives involved in the opioid crisis and for the legalization of marijuana. He supports a federal $15 minimum wage. He advocates a non-interventionist approach to foreign policy, often citing the financial and humanitarian burden of decades-long wars. And he told reporters that he prefers more regulation of tech companies instead of breaking them up, as Warren has proposed.

He also rejected donations from corporate political action committees in his Senate campaign, which has now become something of a requirement for entry in the 2020 presidential primary.

"My vision for the country is something I offer and introduce at every stop," O'Rourke told reporters when asked about the lack of policy ideas on his website. "And [voters'] vision for the country is something I listen to at every meeting and every stop and I will continue to do that."

He also acknowledges that his ability to do that comes from a position of privilege. In an interview with the New York Times this week, Andrew Gillum, who lost a narrow race for Florida governor last year, said O'Rourke "enjoys a set of privileges in his decision making that other candidates don't. Can you imagine it for any of the women that are in the race for president or considering a run?"

Asked by reporters whether that assessment was true, O'Rourke was blunt: "Yes."

"As a white man in this country there are a set of circumstances that are different than they are for women, than they are for people of color," he said after a town hall at a brewery in Conway. "It's incumbent upon me to recognize that and to ensure that this campaign reflects the genius of the country."

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While both Warren and O'Rourke have national recognition, voters appear to have a firmer sense of the Massachusetts senator's positions. And that dynamic has opportunities and liabilities for each of them.

"I'm not one of those people that expects him to have a plan for every contingency. We know how that came out last time," said Slavek Grzelkowski, a retiree from Melvin Village who came to see O'Rourke in Conway. Grzelkowski said voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary, but is now looking for other options. Now, he's interested in Sens. Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar and found O'Rourke to be an "inspirational, energetic man." Warren, he said, "has a lot of expertise up front, and not enough listening."

Patricia Rice, an academic specialist from Laconia, said she wants someone with young blood. "I want someone who understands, better than Donald Trump, what the heck is going on here," she said after seeing O'Rourke in Plymouth. "When you're only talking policy, that's where Bernie went wrong. Wouldn't it be great to have free education? Yes, but that was an overreach, and it turned a lot of people off."

Eileen Copeland of East Conway said O'Rourke "sometimes feels a little wishy-washy. I want to see some more strength out of him. Especially if he's going to go up against Trump, which is the thing I'm measuring everybody against. I think Trump could maybe brow beat him in a debate."

On Warren, Copeland said "I love all of her policy issues. I just hate to say, sometimes she's very professorial. I want the young, I don't want another septuagenarian in there. But she's great in policy, she'd be great to have on the team."

Copeland said she is very interested in Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor from South Bend, Indiana, and finds him to be effectively balancing policy and personality.

"Watching Elizabeth Warren on CNN, I was like, 'Oh Beto better start talking about policy,'" said Fran Arsenault, a realtor who came to see O'Rourke in Keene, referring to the senator's televised town hall this week. "But I think that will come."

"The field is wide and far," said Reed Van Rossum, a teacher from Bartlett, who came to learn more about O'Rourke in Conway. "This is like showing up to Thanksgiving dinner where there are so many plates on the table I don't know where to start."