O'Rourke was most confident when bringing up his home state and his near victory in the 2018 Senate race in making his case for electability.

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke registered a subdued performance in his second debate outing as a presidential candidate — a stabilization from his stumbles during last month's debate in Miami.

"I'm running for president because I believe that America discovers its greatness at its moments of greatest need," he said early on. "This moment will define us forever, and I believe that in this test, America will be redeemed."

O'Rourke did not have a breakout moment Tuesday night, but the El Paso native also came off as far more confident than in the last debate or his previous outings against Ted Cruz in their race for U.S. Senate last fall. The nearly three-hour CNN debate was notable for its clashes between the more moderate candidates and liberals on the stage over issues that included health care and immigration. But O'Rourke mostly avoided those clashes as he walked the dividing line in between.

Sources within the campaign said his preparation involved less mechanical and rote responses and more of a "let Beto be Beto" approach, as one aide described. O'Rourke was at his most confident when bringing up his home state and his near victory in the 2018 Senate race in making his case for electability.

"There is a new battleground state: Texas, and it has 38 Electoral College votes," he said.

He brought up Texas multiple times, including in his closing argument.

"Those 38 Electoral College votes in Texas are now in play, and I can win them," he said. "That is how we defeat Donald Trump in November 2020, and how we bring this divided country together again in January of 2021."

O’Rourke has remained in low single digits in most polls in recent weeks, and needs a breakout moment to jumpstart his campaign. But unlike several other candidates onstage Tuesday, he has already qualified for the next round of debates, which are on friendly ground in Houston, making it less urgent for that moment to come immediately.

O'Rourke appeared onstage with Montana Gov. Steve Bullock; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; former U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland; former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio; U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; and author Marianne Williamson.

One person who was not onstage with him: his fellow Texan, Julián Castro. The pair rumbled over immigration at the last debate, but the San Antonioan drew a lot to appear on the debate stage Wednesday night with former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California and several other candidates.

In his time onstage, O'Rourke plugged a "Medicare for America," plan, which would automatically enroll people who do not have private insurance in Medicare while allowing others to keep private insurance.

O'Rourke also reiterated his support for U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee's reparations legislation in addressing heightened racial rhetoric coming from Trump.


Patrick Svitek contributed reporting.