- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2019

There are two Texas Democrats in the 2020 presidential conversation, and while they’re not far apart politically, they’re taking completely opposite approaches to seeking their party’s nomination.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke has live-streamed his dental checkup, posted rambling musings online, and seems to be struggling to figure his next steps after his failed bid to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz last year.

Meanwhile former Obama Cabinet official Julian Castro has been following the presidential candidate’s playbook to a T, becoming the first major Democrat to announce an exploratory committee last year, then announcing his full-fledged campaign last month, and making all the other early moves to prove he wants to be a contender.

“He’s always been something of a celebrity in Texas,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “The question now is if he’ll be able to translate that to a broader stage.”

By almost any measure, the path to the White House for Mr. Castro, 44, is a thin and tangled one.

He barely registers in polls.

An Emerson College poll in Iowa, which hosts the caucuses that will kick off the Democratic primary a year from now, surveyed 260 likely Democratic voters. Just four of them backed Mr. Castro.

And Monmouth University, in a national poll, found just 1 percent support for Mr. Castro.

That means the former San Antonio mayor has a lot of ground to cover if he wants to catch former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who led the crowded Democratic field in the same poll with 29 percent, followed by Sen. Bernard Sanders, at 16 percent.

Mr. O’Rourke, who has not made any official moves toward being a candidate, came in fourth with 7 percent.

Mr. Jillson calls Mr. O’Rourke’s post-election dithering “his Hamlet act.”

“And I’m not sure that’s playing very well,” he said. “It seems to reflect less maturity and decisiveness than people have traditionally looked for in their presidential candidates.”

Mr. Castro, on the other hand, suffers from no such waffling.

He’s made the announcements, TV appearances and early-state visits necessary to make clear to voters he wants to be taken seriously.

“In politics, it sometimes is these various little points that add up, and in Julian Castro’s case I think he’s done all the little things right so far,” said Felipe Hinojosa, a history professor at Texas A&M University.

One of those things is his stress on executive experience, Texas analysts said.

The youngest person ever elected to office in San Antonio — he was 26 when he he won a city council seat — Mr. Castro became mayor of the country’s seventh-largest city at 35.

Two years after Mr. Castro delivered the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, former President Obama tapped Mr. Castro for a Cabinet post, nominating him as secretary of Housing and Urban Development in 2014.

Although his relatively short career was reportedly one reason Hillary Clinton ultimately passed Mr. Castro over after considering him for vice president on her 2016 Democratic ticket, his campaign is understandably highlighting specific accomplishments during that career.

In particular, the campaign points to Mr. Castro’s stint as mayor as an example of not only his experience but his competence in terms of getting things done. Operating in a less partisanly hostile environment than he may encounter on the national stage, Mr. Castro was able to get business leaders behind a sales tax increase sold to voters as a pre-kindergarten education boost.

That same plan has become a signature plank in his presidential platform, with the campaign stressing the “pre-K for the U.S.A.” line.

The contrast between elected office and executive posts becomes particularly important given the nearly identical left-wing economic platforms of the announced Democratic candidates, Mr. Jillson said.

Mr. Castro’s campaign did not respond to interview requests and questions about how he plans to distinguish himself in the crowded field, but his positions and statements have put him squarely in the emerging left wing of the party.

Mr. Castro, who hails from a family with deep political roots, makes no secret of the fact affirmative action put him and his brother into Stanford and then Harvard Law, a top shelf educational background that makes him a firm supporter of affirmative action admissions policies.

“I’ve lived a life experience of coming from a neighborhood and family where we were struggling, and I can identify with those folks who are struggling,” he said in his last “Meet The Press” appearance before officially declaring.

While Mr. Hinojosa believes “ethnicity won’t be enough,” he said it’s smart for Mr. Castro to stress that at the outset when he’s trying to draw some differences between himself and the left-wing mass of Democratic hopefuls.

“Julian Castro has a story to tell voters,” FiveThirtyEight concluded in a look last month at Mr. Castro’s chances. “But it remains to be seen if he can sufficiently raise his profile to that of a real contender.”

Mr. Castro’s embrace of his Latino mantle does more than position himself in the 2020 White House run, however.

As several experts noted, Mr. Castro’s decisiveness has already distanced himself from Mr. O’Rourke as perhaps Texas’ most prominent Democrat in a state that will have two statewide elections in the next four years.

“What’s the downside of all this?” asked Kirby Goidel, director of Texas A&M’s Public Policy Research Institute. “As Barack Obama and President Trump have shown, you don’t have to have an extensive resume to catch fire as a candidate, but even if Castro doesn’t get that far this time he’s now someone who has generated a decent amount of buzz and has built something of a fundraising base. That’s not the worst thing that can happen for a young politician.”

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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