MOUNT PLEASANT: Media sensation Beto O'Rourke, who has shaken up the Democratic race for the White House since announcing his candidacy this week, had just spent three long days in Iowa hammering home his left-leaning priorities while insisting he is a "capitalist."
"Would you consider yourself a socialist?"
The question — a sensitive one in the US, where the term "socialist" can be used as an insult -- comes at him Friday morning from a man who turned out to hear him in a cafe in peaceful little Mount Pleasant, Iowa.
Standing on a countertop to address the crowd, the sleeves of his light-blue Oxford shirt rolled up, O'Rourke does not flinch.
"I consider myself a capitalist," the 46-year-old Texan says without hesitation, mentioning the "high-skill, high-tech, high-wage business" he and some friends started in 1999 in El Paso.
But O'Rourke, who was born into an affluent family and married the daughter of a real estate magnate, hastens to add that many Americans now suffer from what is "clearly an imperfect, unfair, unjust and racist capitalist economy."
"There's a lot more we've got to do to make sure this capitalism is just."
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O'Rourke's good looks, casual dress and natural ease during his recent campaign for the US Senate proved magnetic to the national news media and drew the support of celebrities from singer Beyonce to basketball star LeBron James and actor Jim Carrey.
But after being narrowly beaten in November by Republican Ted Cruz in historically conservative Texas, the onetime punk rocker seemed to hesitate before launching into the race for the presidency in 2020.
Despite his relative inexperience on the national stage — he served six years in the US Congress— he finally took the leap, formally announcing his candidacy on Thursday in a video that seemed curiously conventional coming from such a social media-savvy figure.
His move immediately shook up what was already a record large field of Democratic candidates hoping to succeed Republican President Donald Trump.
Much more a centrist than 77-year-old Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, or than consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren, O'Rourke has staked out positions closer to those of Obama vice president Joe Biden who, at 76, leads most polls of Democratic voters despite not having formally declared his candidacy.
O'Rourke, 30 years Biden's junior, often voted along with Republicans during his time in the US House of Representatives, from 2013 to 2019.
But as the young pragmatist opened his campaign in Midwestern Iowa, the first state to vote in next year's presidential nominating process, the contours of a platform firmly anchored on the left quickly emerged.
Without mentioning the border wall sought by Trump, O'Rourke, whose hometown of El Paso lies directly across the Rio Grande from Mexico, made immigration -- and the regularization of thousands of undocumented migrants -- a top priority, along with universal health care and the battle against climate change, which he called "the challenge of our lifetime."
Among his other promises: a $15-an-hour minimum wage, systematic background checks for anyone seeking to purchase a firearm, and a sweeping reform of the justice system.
An avowed exponent of consensus who claims to transcend partisan divides, O'Rourke, in the many small gatherings he addressed across Iowa, mentioned Trump only to denounce what he said was the president's dangerous rhetoric.
With his open and approachable demeanour, O'Rourke said he wanted to ensure that "the kindness, the decency and the respect we show one another ... is reflected in our politics, in our democracy, in our leadership."
But the Texan's resolutely positive message was shaken Friday when controversy erupted over some violence-filled writings he had posted as a teenager in the 1980s when he was part of an obscure group of hackers — pioneers of a sort in that field -- known as the "Cult of the Dead Cow."
"I'm mortified to read it now, incredibly embarrassed, but I have to take ownership of my words," said O'Rourke, who still makes playful allusions to his past as a skateboarding bassist in a punk-rock band.
Back then, he was posting under a pseudonym that is world's away from the image of a model husband, father and citizen he now tries to project: "Psychedelic Warlord."