No one – not Bernie Sanders, not Elizabeth Warren, not Pete Buttigieg, not anyone – has more riding on tonight’s CNN Democratic presidential debate than Beto O’Rourke.
The former Texas congressman entered the 2020 race to a huge amount of fanfare (and money; $6 million raised in his first day as a candidate). But since then, not much of anything.
O’Rourke has looked genuinely lost in the race over the last few months, a sense typified by his barely there performance in the first debates of the presidential contest last month. The one notable moment for O’Rourke in that debate was a bad one; he got beaten up by former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro for an alleged lack of knowledge and specificity about how to address the immigration crisis in the country.
In the run-up to tonight’s debate, the O’Rourke campaign has acknowledged that he wasn’t at his best in the first set-to and promised he will be better this time around. “I think something needs to come through that’s a lot more me in the way that I give those answers,” O’Rourke told Jemele Hill recently.
His team has also signaled O’Rourke’s plan to go after Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, in a concerted way – under the belief that Mayor Pete has stolen the inspirational mojo that belonged to Beto early in the race, and that this debate is the perfect time to steal it back.
There’s a big difference, of course, between saying you are going to be better and more aggressive, and actually getting on the stage and, well, doing it.
To be clear: This isn’t O’Rourke’s last chance. He has already met the higher qualifications for the third and fourth debates in September and October, so he’ll be onstage again no matter what happens tonight. But what tonight will likely determine is whether he will be a bit player in those debates or a real competitor for the nomination.
The Point: The stakes are very, very high for O’Rourke. Another debate swing-and-a-miss could put him in a very bad spot.