Beto O’Rourke Runs Away With First Half of Democratic Debate, But Runs Into Tough Questions

In the Democratic presidential debate Tuesday night, Democratic voters reacted to a series of sharp exchanges between opponents, with some backing up front runner Beto O’Rourke, while others calling for leadership from U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, of El Paso, said in an interview with MSNBC Wednesday that for the first time in his life, he felt the “pressure” of being one of the frontrunners in the race.

Meanwhile, the nation’s Democrats got up close and personal with the three Democratic frontrunners in a televised debate that was sometimes highly charged and sometimes playful. Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden did not attend, although he watched the debate remotely.

O’Rourke, who got a warm welcome from the audience, stole the show in the first half of the debate, drawing applause for standing up for children’s health care, criticizing Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance policy for immigration and his criticism of El Paso’s resilience in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

O’Rourke’s spirited showing in the debate came as he has fallen behind other Democrats in fundraising and public opinion polls.

But an upbeat O’Rourke exuded calm and confidence as he spoke on stage, in contrast to the sometimes painfully nervous responses that some of his rivals displayed during the debate.

O’Rourke’s performance put him in a good position to improve his standing in the race, a sentiment reiterated in an interview with MSNBC that aired after the debate.

“Tonight my momentum was strong,” O’Rourke said. “What I did tonight was remind people who I am. I walked up to the stage and talked about what I am and who I am.”

O’Rourke also showed his mild-mannered side by taking on others during the debate.

In the early going, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California pointedly told Harris Gardner, the mayor of Compton, that U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke did not understand the way young African-American men were getting killed because the arrests were being made in smaller numbers.

In a heated exchange, Harris described federal law enforcement as the “epicenter of gun violence,” and also attacked O’Rourke for his position that the drug epidemic is not as acute a problem in his city of El Paso.

“You’re not hearing the men and women of the El Paso Police Department talking about gun violence,” Harris said. “They’re talking about drugs and they’re worried about safety, and so that’s exactly what I’m hearing.”

Harris’ barbs gave a nod to former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s belief that law enforcement plays a significant role in curbing gun violence.

O’Rourke, speaking to Harris about shootings by young African-American men in Compton, gave an implicit rebuttal of her accusation that he had not spent enough time in El Paso seeing what he could do to help improve the situation.

“I have spent more time in the City of El Paso since I’ve been a congressman than you’ve been in the City of Compton,” O’Rourke said.

O’Rourke, of El Paso, raised more than $3 million in the past seven days. He is in the middle of a six-day, five-city tour in the West, and planned to continue his trip Wednesday. O’Rourke announced his campaign for president in his hometown of El Paso, near the Arizona border, on Sunday and is expected to visit other presidential primary states in January and February.

He’s the fifth candidate to jump into the race. But O’Rourke, 44, is the only one on the stage here in South Carolina to have a profile that reaches beyond just the Hispanic community in a state where Democrats need to win over many minority voters in 2020 to take the presidency.

In the debate, Harris avoided talking about Trump’s family separation policy on illegal immigration and on Wednesday attributed her comments at the debate to “inside baseball” issues that were not among the most pressing issues facing Americans.

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