The first thing I thought when I got into the Great Hall at UNC-CH to await Beto O’Rourke was, “Sure are a lot of white people here.” I am used to going to political events that have diverse crowds, but with the exception of maybe two or three African-American students and a handful of Asian students, the crowd of more than 500 hundred people was all white. As one person told me, “That’s a reflection of UNC more than anything.” That may be true but I think it also reflects Beto’s appeal. 

Beto right now seems to be going after younger voters. He’s trying to build up a base of support in a crowded primary field. Before he was in North Carolina, he was at Clemson. After he was in North Carolina, he went to UVA. He understands that to survive a yearlong primary campaign, he’ll need to have small but unfailingly loyal group of supporters. Those young, mostly white, people give him that base. 

Beto also brings the advantage of just coming off of a campaign. I was struck by the choreography of the event. He had rope lines and music. Everything was planned and he had staff that knew what they were doing. They looked like a top tier campaign even if he’s really just getting off the ground. 

Beto likes to look surrounded, giving the impression of accessibility, which he’s really not. He brings his own soapbox to stand on. Instead of being on a stage in front of the crowd, he plops his box down in the middle of the crowd, giving the sense of being among them instead of in front of them. 

And they loved it. He got loud applause and cheers when he came through the door. People were already wearing Beto t-shirts and sporting stickers on their cars. He carries a sort of rock star persona tempered by a regular guy schtick. The only thing missing was entrance music, which I’m sure will come later.

Beto was very prepared. He answered questions off the cuff and didn’t duck any. At one point someone interrupted to ask why he didn’t support single-payer health care, implying he sided with insurance companies. Beto handled him deftly, making his case why a public option is better than stripping people of health insurance they like. He remembers the fight over the Affordable Care Act and the fallout in 2010; the heckler probably doesn’t. The cynical part of me wonders if the guy wasn’t a plant so O’Rourke could make his case on an issue that will likely dominate the primaries going down the stretch (think the Clinton-Obama debates in 2008).

As I told a reporter at the event, I think the primary will eventually come down to Bernie Sanders and the anti-Bernie candidate. First, the crowd needs to be whittled down to determine who becomes the anti-Bernie. For now, everybody is trying to stay viable to survive the early primaries and the Iowa caucuses. Beto looks to be building an operation that can do that. These colleges kids will be his base, but he’ll have to expand beyond them to win the nomination.

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