Beto O'Rourke held a raucous, uplifting rally in El Paso yesterday, reminding his admirers why they were drawn to his message in a razor-close, but ultimately losing Senate race.

He had eschewed public events since his defeat.

Now the question is: Can he recapture the energy and excitement he generated during his Senate race after other presidential candidates - who may be just as inspirational - have made a splash and begun their campaigns?

The former congressman's "preseason" presidential campaign had been harshly criticised. He had been slammed by national presidential media for his frivolous car trek, his absence from the tough fights of the day, his lack of response to serious policy questions and his nonchalant attitude towards politics. He said at one point that he might teach instead of running for president.


Local media had been especially tough.

O'Rourke gave his fans a sneak preview of his political return during a sit-down with Oprah Winfrey last week, but was noncommittal on a presidential run.

Yesterday seemed to mark a change.

O'Rourke once again was the star attraction.

Using a border rally to respond to US President Donald Trump, he attacked the right's false claims that El Paso was a crime-ridden disaster until a wall was built. In contrast with Trump's vision of immigrants as disease-ridden criminals, O'Rourke spoke about our shared humanity.

He certainly spoke with passion, reminding his fans of the power of his soaring rhetoric and his ability to elevate unifying American values above grubby partisan politics.

"Walls do not save lives. They end lives," he told the crowd.

His staccato delivery seemed to energise the crowd.


He spoke both in English and Spanish, emphasising the city's sense of solidarity and community.

The crowd in El Paso, Texas, for Representative Beto O'Rourke.
The crowd in El Paso, Texas, for Representative Beto O'Rourke.

No question that he spoke with excitement and optimism, but should he decide to enter the presidential race, it's not clear that will be enough.

Sure, he drew a big crowd, although not nearly as big as the rollout in Oakland for Senator Kamala Harris.

Pulling together a crowd on short notice was no easy feat, but not nearly as impressive as getting supporters out in the blizzard-like conditions Senator Amy Klobuchar endured during her announcement on Monday.

O'Rourke is inspirational, but Senator Cory Booker also has been carrying the banner of love and unity.

O'Rourke capably describes the chance to recover our deepest-held values and restore the goodness of our country, but Senator Elizabeth Warren also promises "fundamental change" to recapture a good, decent America.

O'Rourke praises the spirit of ordinary Americans, but then Senator Sherrod Brown, who seems poised to jump into the race, also connects with diverse crowds using the "dignity of work" theme.

So is there room and a distinct audience for O'Rourke?

It certainly isn't "too late" for him to enter the presidential campaign. The primaries are a year away, and he already has demonstrated his impressive fundraising ability. His name ID is already as high as, if not higher than, some announced candidates.

However, the challenge for him - now that there are so many other candidates, some who are much more experienced and several just as emotionally compelling - is to answer the Ted Kennedy question: Why does he want to be president? To be blunt, he has to explain what's so special about Beto O'Rourke.

O'Rourke can pull thousands together on short notice, but he has to date been resistant to "scaling up" his operation and creating a campaign organisation that can compete in multiple states.

The impromptu feel of his rally, like his Senate campaign stops, can be electrifying, but one wonders whether he understands that there is far more to winning the nomination than high-minded rhetoric.

Should he run for president, O'Rourke would need to show what makes an ex-congressman and defeated Senate candidate uniquely situated to oust Trump, unite a deeply divided country and then govern it.

He sounds as though he's climbing into the ring, so we may have a chance to find out.