WASHINGTON, Iowa: Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke listens to questions from voters during his second day of campaigning for the 2020 nomination at Art Domestique. – AFP

MOUNT PLEASANT: Winter is clinging to the plains of Iowa but the crowd packed inside the Mount Pleasant coffee house is snug and warm as they await the latest candidate in the 2020 presidential race. Dozens of people have turned up at Central Park Coffee, curious to hear what former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, a rising star in the Democratic Party, has to say.

The 46-year-old surprised the television cameras and the crowd by slipping quietly in through a back door before rolling up the sleeves of his trademark blue shirt to address the gathering. The skateboarding former punk rocker rocketed to fame by running a close race in November against Republican Senator Ted Cruz in Texas, a reliably conservative state, and announced his candidacy for the presidency in a video on Sunday. O’Rourke, whose given name is Robert but goes by “Beto,” promised to deliver a positive and unifying message as he joined the crowded field of Democrats seeking to oust Trump in next year’s vote.

Using sweeping hand gestures, despite the mockery of President Donald Trump the previous day, O’Rourke spoke for about 10 minutes, expressing his condolences for the victims of the massacre at two New Zealand mosques. He then touched on some of the other major themes of his campaign — universal health care, criminal justice reform and climate change. The biggest annual event in this town of some 8,500 people in southwest Iowa surrounded by corn and soy bean fields is the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion, an agricultural fair.

Henry County, where Mount Pleasant is located, voted for Trump in 2016 but the trade wars launched by the president — and the tariffs which have cut into their exports — have lost him some support. And not just among farmers. Robert Morrison lost his job as a machinist when Siemens closed its plant in Burlington to move operations to the Czech Republic and India. “It is very unfair what happened,” Morrison said. “If you knew what happened, it was a dirty deal.” He said he hoped O’Rourke “would do his best to try and keep our jobs in the United States, to keep us working.”Morrison said he found O’Rourke to be “very charismatic, very positive.” “He gets his message across very well,” he said. “I think he would make a good president.”

‘Fresh voice’

Ted Bowling, a 62-year-old retired teacher who is originally from Texas, said he found O’Rourke to be a “breath of fresh air.”  “It has stagnated for the last two and a half years and I think Beto has a fresh voice,” said Bowling, who was wearing a “Beto 2020” hat and backed Democrat Hillary Clinton the last time around. Like Morrison, Bowling also said he found O’Rourke to be “very charismatic.” At 17, Garrick Dodson is not old enough to vote but he will be by February of next year when Iowa becomes the first state to hold a presidential caucus.

Dodson said he was leaning, however, more towards Bernie Sanders, the standard bearer for the left wing of the Democratic Party. “I just wanted to see what’s up with Beto O’Rourke,” he said, calling him an “interesting candidate.” “He does remind me a lot of Obama, but I think he could be more progressive,” Dodson said. “If you look at the whole field of who we have today, he’s not the most progressive and I probably won’t caucus for him.”

Rachel Beatty, an 85-year-old retired teacher, said she was impressed by the “enthusiasm” of O’Rourke. “But there are so many good candidates,” Beatty said as she checked out the Instagram app on her smartphone. Beatty was asked if she was following the social media savvy O’Rourke on Instagram. “God no,” she said. “It’s the only way I can communicate with my granddaughter.” – AFP