FLORENCE — Like many Democratic voters in South Carolina and around the country, Wendell Brown first heard about Beto O'Rourke when he was running against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas last year.
O'Rourke's stronger-than-expected performance against a Republican incumbent in a historically red state, losing by just 2.6 percent, captivated liberal imaginations and made Brown hope that the former Texas congressman would run for president next.
But as the crowded Democratic presidential primary race kicked into gear, Brown began to reconsider his preference for O'Rourke.
"When they had the first debate, with the field that had grown so much, I had a lot of candidates to look at," said Brown, 53. "So that made me stand back awhile and say, 'OK I'm not for anybody right now, just let me look at the spectrum of candidates who are running and then select from there.'"
That array of options for Democratic voters has created problems for O'Rourke as he struggles to break out of the pack.
Of all the many candidates in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary field, few others have experienced such a pronounced disconnect between the size and enthusiasm of their crowds in South Carolina and their standing in the polls here as O'Rourke.
Some candidates have received both big crowds and rising poll numbers. Many have received neither. But O'Rourke straddles an uncomfortable space in between.
While he consistently draws hundreds of intrigued voters to his events, polls have found that his support in the early-primary state has nevertheless dropped below the levels he held before even entering the race, when people like Brown were yearning for him to run.
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Despite those setbacks, O'Rourke expressed little frustration in an interview with The Post and Courier following another energetic town hall this week at Seminar Brewing in Florence — and he remained patiently optimistic that the enduring interest in his campaign would eventually translate into supporters.
"What I've learned in the campaigns that I've run before is it's in part a function of time," O'Rourke said. "My hope is that folks who saw something they liked, heard something that resonated with their lives and what they want to see for the country are going to go back and tell their friends and family."
He cited two of his previous underdog campaigns — a 2012 primary victory over Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes in El Paso and the narrow loss to Cruz last year — as proof that he can eventually change the dynamics of a race if he sticks at it.
When O'Rourke launched his long-shot bid against Cruz, he was so little-known that a Texas GOP spokesman responded at the time with a single word: "Who?"
But he eventually went from "a small pimple in the polling universe" to a serious challenger attracting national attention, in part due to his oft-stated approach of "going everywhere and meeting everyone" to try to make personal connections.
"That's my premise, and it really will be seen whether that is borne out in our success," O'Rourke said. "I believe in a democracy that you connect, reach out and listen to people and include them in the solutions. And I think that is also the way to build the strongest, longest-lasting base of support. So we're just going to keep doing this."
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O'Rourke's two-day swing through South Carolina this week, with multiple stops in the Charleston area, Columbia and Florence, marked his fifth visit to the state since launching his campaign — but the first since a devastating mass shooting targeting immigrants in his hometown of El Paso.
The tragic incident took O'Rourke away from the campaign trail but also gave him a new test in the national spotlight, which ultimately intensified his approach to gun control and hate crimes.
Brandon Counts, a vice chair of the Horry County Young Democrats, came away from O'Rourke's Florence town hall struck by the candidate's forceful response to a supporter of President Donald Trump who disputed O'Rourke's claim that Trump is stoking racism.
"I definitely think he’s a sleeper candidate," said Counts, 32. "He’s one of the ones you may not look at first or second but maybe you look at third. I think as long as he continues to push his message, he’ll eventually resonate. The challenge is we just have a lot of talent in this field and he's competing with so many people."
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Tyler Jones, a senior adviser for O'Rourke's campaign in South Carolina who's worked on several presidential races before, said he won't start worrying until people stop showing up to hear O'Rourke.
"If even some of the people showing up to our events vote for us, then we’re going to be polling much higher than 2 percent," Jones said. "As long as they stay interested, that’s how you win these crazy large primaries: You never have a voter close the door on you. And the door is still wide open."
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After O'Rourke talked to students and professors at Benedict College in Columbia on Tuesday — telling them he wants to double funding for historically black colleges and universities like theirs, raise the minimum wage and confront issues like climate change and police brutality head on — several of them said they would give O'Rourke a fresh look.
And Brown, who is an art professor at Benedict, said the event leapfrogged O'Rourke back to the top of his favorites in the Democratic primary.
"He restored my faith," Brown said. "He was exactly what I had been reading about and seeing on television at the start. He's personable. He listens. He's passionate. He's someone who's truly about creating change."
As O'Rourke walked out of the classroom at Benedict, Brown stopped the candidate to briefly tell him how he felt.
"I was with you at the beginning, and then I strayed away," Brown said. "But I'm back."