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Red-hot Beto could end up with blue party's veto
"I AM not sure what it is, but the guy has that something, that charisma, and I almost feel hypnotised by him." That was how a friend - a lawyer and veteran Democratic politico (and I should add, a heterosexual male) - explained to me over dinner last week why he is so, so attracted to a 46-year-old man, a certain tall and handsome Texan whom he just finds too irresistible.
And not just my Washingtonian pal. They call it "Betomania" when they refer to the excitement that has taken hold over so many Democrats, the strategists, the fundraisers and pundits, and the rest of the members of the political universe, after the former Congressman from Texas, Robert Francis "Beto" O'Rourke, announced that he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Since then, it has been Beto here, Beto there, Beto everywhere and all the time: Exploding media coverage, including a full Vanity Fair magazine cover launch with photos by Annie Leibovitz - which is a clear sign that he has become a national celebrity.
That in turn has translated into a powerful political momentum with a growing number of fans who are helping to propel someone - who was an unknown politician from El Paso, Texas, just a year or two ago - to the top echelon of the Democratic presidential candidates, with opinion polls placing him just a few percentage points behind two political heavyweights, former vice-president Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
And in his first 24 hours as an official presidential candidate, Mr O'Rourke was able to raise more than US$6 million for his campaign, mostly from small donors over the Internet, which placed him on the road to building a solid financial base that could sustain him over a long and expensive campaign.
His claim to fame has been his success in demonstrating that a Democrat could do much better than expected in the deeply "red" state of Texas where he lost by a relatively narrow margin of 3 per cent when he challenged Republican Senator Ted Cruz last November.
No Democrat has been elected to statewide office in Texas since 1994, so Mr O'Rourke's performance was a big deal, helping him to raise millions of dollars and transforming him into a recognised national political figure.
But then if you disregard the 2018 Texas Senate race - that Mr O'Rourke actually lost - much of his professional and political career, including representing the 16th congressional district of Texas in the House of Representatives for free terms, did not amount to a great success story.
In fact, Mr O'Rourke's record in Congress has already raised more than a few eyebrows among many Democrats after The Wall Street Journal reported that before becoming a rising star in the Democratic Party, former congressman O'Rourke relied mostly on the support of pro-business Republicans in Texas to first launch, and then advance, his political career. In a political year when the Democratic Party has been moving to the political left and young progressive activists are dominating the party's debates and outlining its agenda, Beto has pledged to run on "bold, progressive ideas" and to challenge Corporate America, and has expressed support for the so-called Green New Deal and other progressive ideas.
But during his three terms in Congress, Mr O'Rourke failed to advance any major legislative agenda and in general espoused positions favoured by the real estate and oil businesses in Texas, that include those owned by his billionaire father-in-law, William Sanders, a real estate developer. That past could certainly make it difficult for him to re-invent himself as a progressive crusader.
In addition to his service in Congress and a brief and unsuccessful business career, Beto has also been a rock musician of sorts, and while studying at Columbia University in the 1990s he, together with two other friends, formed the band known as Foss, touring the United States and and releasing a self-titled demo and a 7" record, The El Paso Pussycats.
Indeed, it is this "hip" side of Beto - which includes also the time when as a teenager, he was a member of a computer hacker group called the Cult of the Dead Cow - that has ignited so much buzz among young Democratic activists who refer to the cool Texan as the "white Barack Obama".
They insist that only a charismatic political star (even if unconventional, if not a bit weird) like Beto has the chance of mobilising the Democrats to a electoral fighting force and beat President Donald Trump in 2020.
But sceptics express concern that American voters are not in a mood now for having a rock star in the White House and that they want their next president, unlike his two predecessors in office, to have experience in government, to understand complex policy issues, and to be, if anything, more conventional than Messrs Obama and Trump, and perhaps even a little boring.
And Mr O'Rourke is anything but boring. In the glowing Vanity Fair article about him, readers learnt that Mr O'Rourke had a "near-mystical experience" during a major rally in his Senate race, telling the interviewers that he discovered then that "Man, I'm just born to be in it".
Moreover, Mr O'Rourke (not unlike Mr Biden) is facing what can be described as the White Man Obstacle, with many members of the Democratic political base insisting that a person of colour or a woman or preferably both - not a white man - should head the presidential ticket.
From the perspective of the dogma of identity politics that has been embraced by so many Democrats, Beto, the son of a Texan millionaire and the son-in-law of a billionaire, from that same state does not seem to be the candidate of the hour, which explains why Mr O'Rourke has been spending the last few days apologising for being a beneficiary of so-called "white privilege" and advertising his strong ties to the African-American and Hispanic communities in Texas.
But it is not clear whether this strategy is working and there are some signs that the more voters know about Mr O'Rourke, the less they like him. Hence polls among Democrats conducted early this week indicated that Beto is in fourth place in the presidential race, trailing Senator Kamala Harris, an African-American woman and a conventional politician.