Beto O’Rourke uses opening days of challenge against Gov. Greg Abbott to recalibrate
Beto O'Rourke CNN screenshot

After stopping here Monday morning for the first public event of his gubernatorial campaign, Beto O'Rourke faced a reporter who asked him about the perception that he is "a two-time loser, you're a Democrat in a red state, you have no chance of winning."

A few supporters gathered behind O'Rourke quickly registered their disapproval with the line of questioning.

"Can't win if you don't run!" shouted one woman waving a "Beto for Texas" sign.

In his latest run for a Texas office, O'Rourke is again running against the odds — and the first two days of his campaign showed he is recalibrating to deal with his own potential weaknesses. He hit the campaign trail with a pitch narrowly focused on several issues that are largely popular with voters, leaving behind the more incendiary rhetoric from his presidential campaign and trying to separate himself from President Joe Biden on at least one major issue: the border.

"It's clear that President Biden could be doing a better job at the border. It is not enough of a priority for his administration," O'Rourke told the CBS affiliate in Dallas, calling for "predictability, order and the rule of law."

O'Rourke has previously criticized Biden's handling of the border, but to say it is not compassionate enough. His knock on Biden comes as the president's approval rating in Texas continues to tank, especially on his handling of the border.

Gov. Greg Abbott's campaign says it's unsurprising that O'Rourke is trying to turn away from his presidential campaign, when he was trying to stand out in a crowded Democratic primary and prove his progressive credentials. During that contest, O'Rourke said he supported tearing down the existing border wall and famously backed a mandatory federal assault rifle buyback plan.

"The reinvention campaign has begun," Abbott campaign spokesperson Mark Miner said Tuesday. "Day 2 of the campaign, and he's already flip-flopping. Now he can add a third issue — he has a credibility problem."

O'Rourke's stump speech Tuesday clocked in at just over 15 minutes, and it was tightly centered on a handful of specific issues.

He criticized Abbott for backing the state's new laws allowing permitless carry of handguns and banning most abortions. The permitless carry law has been unpopular in polling, and while Texas voters tend to be polarized on abortion in general, the new law's provision that gives private citizens the power to enforce it is more clearly disliked.

O'Rourke said the law "places a bounty on the heads of every woman in this state who wants to make her own decisions about her own body and for her own future."

In the San Antonio speech, O'Rourke praised law enforcement and said they were "pleading" with Abbott not to sign the permitless carry bill, setting up a contrast to Abbott's portrayal of him as hostile to law enforcement because of his support in 2020 for the "defund the police" movement.

When it came to his own proposals, O'Rourke spoke most emphatically about two of them: expanding Medicaid and legalizing marijuana. He called them "commonsense things that all of us agree on." Both are easily popular in Texas, with clear majorities of voters telling pollsters they back Medicaid expansion and legalizing possession of at least small amounts of pot.

O'Rourke's made no mention of his proposal for a mandatory buyback of assault weapons that he forcefully advocated for during his White House bid. He famously proclaimed during one debate that "Hell yes," he wanted to take away people's AR-15s and AK-47s.

In interviews around his launch, O'Rourke said he was not backing away from that idea, while providing a broader answer acknowledging Texas' gun culture, discussing his own upbringing around firearms and promising to protect Second Amendment rights while working to prevent senseless violence. He also used Abbott's support for the unpopular permitless carry to blunt questions about his past comments on guns.

O'Rourke's supporters are mindful of the impact of his "Hell yes" comment, if only as a rallying cry for the opposition.

"His Senate campaign was really hitting all the right notes. I think his presidential campaign hit some maybe not-so-quite-right notes for Texas," said Josh Robbins, a 42-year-old English professor from San Antonio who attended Tuesday's event. "He's got a little bit of work to do as far as messaging for guns in particular, but I think, absolutely, he can do that. He's an incredible communicator."

O'Rourke also came out of the gate with a counterargument to GOP attacks that he will destroy the oil and gas industry that is vital to the Texas economy. Both on the stage and to reporters, O'Rourke touted a Texas AFL-CIO plan that he said would strike an important balance.

When it comes to climate change, "we've got to make sure that … we're creating the jobs that meet that challenge," O'Rourke told reporters. "The AFL-CIO has a plan to create more than a million high-wage, high-value, high-skilled jobs right here in Texas that add to — do not replace, add to — oil and gas jobs in this state."

O'Rourke's praise of the AFL-CIO was notable. The statewide labor group initially declined to endorse him in the 2018 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, after he missed its convention and amid questions about his positions on trade.

On the stage in San Antonio, O'Rourke said he had just spoken with the president of the Texas AFL-CIO, Rick Levy, and told him he wants to be his "partner" in the campaign.

"I trust the men and women of labor, and I'm gonna work with them," said O'Rourke, speaking outside the local chapter of the Communication Workers of America.

In an apparent attempt to flip the script on Republicans campaigning on lower taxes, O'Rourke framed Abbott's positions on some issues as ones that are costing Texans more money. Addressing supporters in San Antonio, he argued Medicaid expansion would, "for any of you who are sick and tired of your property tax bill, bring those bills down as we ease the pressure by bringing in federal money."

Also, since announcing, O'Rourke has referred to the surcharges that Texas ratepayers are facing after the electric grid failure during February's freeze as the "Abbott tax."

O'Rourke has a short window to change minds and tamp down potential vulnerabilities. His entrance into the race Monday came just under a year before the election, and just under a month before the candidate filing deadline for the March primary.

"I know we've just gotten started, but we have less than a year left to us," he told supporters in San Antonio, imploring them to immediately get to work for his campaign.

After San Antonio, he headed to Laredo as part of an opening swing through the state that is taking him deep into South Texas. It is a significant choice — both after Biden underperformed there in 2020 and after O'Rourke's own struggles in the region in the 2018 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.

"If the great sin committed by Republicans historically has been to disenfranchise voters, including those in the Rio Grande Valley, then that committed by Democrats has been to take those same voters for granted in the past," O'Rourke told reporters in San Antonio.

The event was a festive affair, with San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg swinging by to speak briefly and a mariachi band taking over the stage after O'Rourke spoke, leading chants of, "Go, Beto, go!" O'Rourke stuck around for a photo line that stretched the length of the parking lot where he spoke.

Waiting toward the back of the line was Maria Cervantes, a 62-year-old homemaker from San Antonio who missed O'Rourke's speech but was still hoping for a photo. She said she likes "everything" about O'Rourke — "just 100%" — and believes the difference between him and Abbott is "day and night." She said she especially disagreed with Abbott on the permitless carry law and called his approach to the pandemic "the worst thing," citing his bans on mask and vaccine mandates.

"This time, he's gonna win, for sure," Cervantes said of O'Rourke. "I heard a lot of people talking about Beto [in 2018], and we were upset last time that he didn't win, but now I think everybody's getting together, and that's why I think he's going to win."

While O'Rourke did not mention the border at the event, Abbott's campaign did its best to force the issue, dispatching people to hand out fake "Beto bucks" stamped with the label "BETO BIDEN BORDER CRISIS." They were for $450,000, the maximum amount that was reportedly discussed as an option for the Biden administration to compensate migrants separated from family members at the border. Biden has since said such compensation is "not going to happen."