Politics & Government

Absent Biden, Beto takes the heat during the curtain raiser for the Democratic primary

Beto O’Rourke came to Miami on Wednesday night looking for a moment to help his struggling presidential campaign but may have done more — at least early on — to help his competitors.

As the curtain raised on the presidential primary, O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who rose to national prominence last year while losing a close Senate race, became a convenient springboard during the first moments of the first 2020 Democratic debate for some of the other nine candidates looking to break out during night one of a back-to-back event.

While President Donald Trump or even front-running Joe Biden may have been more obvious foils coming into the night, candidates farther back in the polls seemed to look instead to O’Rourke — who spent the night calling for national unity — to try and claw their way forward.

Fellow Texan Julián Castro, who like most everyone else in the vast Democratic field is polling around 1%, criticized O’Rourke’s immigration stance. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who barely eked into the debate after a late start, blasted the former congressman for defending a healthcare system “that’s not working.” The NBC moderators even got in on the action, asking O’Rourke twice early in the night to stop dodging their questions.

Absent Biden, who will debate Thursday night as the final half of the top 20 candidates venture to the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, O’Rourke faced the bulk of the criticism early on from opponents on a stage that also included New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Castro, de Blasio, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

While Warren was the highest profile candidate on stage — where she took the center podium — O’Rourke, a media darling who has been at times criticized for lacking substance and direction, proved an easier target during an affair watched by millions of people.

On immigration policy, Castro, who was once mayor of San Antonio, helped use O’Rourke to press his point that Congress needs to do away with a law — Section 1325 — used by the Trump administration to further a short-lived family separation policy.

“As a member of Congress I introduced legislation to make sure that we don’t criminalize refugees in this country,” O’Rourke said.

“The reasons that they’re separating these little children from their families is that they’re using Section 1325 of that act which criminalizes coming across the border to incarcerate the parents and then separate them. Some of us on this stage have called to end that section, to terminate,” said Castro, drawing applause. “Some, like Congressman O’Rourke, have not.”

De Blasio jumps in

De Blasio also interrupted O’Rourke while he was talking about immigration. And he went after the former congressman while he answered a question about a flip-flop on his past praise of legislation that would abolish private insurance.

“Why are you defending private insurance to begin with?” asked de Blasio, hoping to emphasize that, among those on stage, only Warren and the New York mayor still favor doing away with private insurance as a means to improve healthcare.

Being at the center of the crossfire was an awkward position for O’Rourke to be in, given that he spent the night calling for national unity. “We’ll need a movement like the one we led in Texas,” he said, “by bringing everyone in and writing nobody off. That’s how we beat Donald trump.”

But Wednesday was the confirmation that the 2020 Democratic primary has entered a new phase in which the candidates are no longer promoting themselves but also building up their names by breaking others down. And O’Rourke, who has waved off suggestions that South Bend (Indiana) Mayor Pete Buttigieg has risen in the polls at the former congressman’s expense, occupies a precarious middle ground in which opponents can hope to cannibalize his voters.

Others took fire as well, potentially seeing hopes fading for fledgling campaigns. Gabbard, an Iraq veteran, went after Ryan over his position that the U.S. should stay “engaged” in Afghanistan. Delaney seemed to spend much of his time clashing with the moderators over whether he could get a word in.

But O’Rourke — who did have his moments — may have had the most to lose. Where Warren was able to pick her spots to promote her progressive bona fides and Klobuchar carved out a road in the middle, O’Rourke had trouble getting his footing, called out on both of his first two questions for not actually providing a direct answer.

A Miami answer

He recovered, calling climate change the country’s greatest threat in a city spending nearly $200 million to fight sea rise. And he was the first candidate to speak Spanish, something he did repeatedly during the night during a debate held in a bilingual community.

At one point, he answered a question asked in Spanish by Telemundo anchor José Díaz-Balart about what he would do to address an immigration crisis that led a father and young daughter to drown while trying to swim Monday from Mexico to the U.S. across the Rio Grande.

“We would not turn back Valeria and her father, Oscar,” O’Rourke said in Spanish. “We would accept them into this country and follow our own asylum laws. We would not build walls. We would not put kids in cages ... and we would not criminally prosecute any family who is fleeing violence and persecution.”

O’Rourke will have a chance Thursday to emphasize that point when he visits the nation’s largest child migrant detention center in the U.S. in Homestead. But even that visit was undercut by his opponents, with Warren drawing a massive scrum to the center Wednesday for a previously unscheduled visit.

Miami Herald reporter Samantha Gross contributed to this report.