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Beto O'Rourke

Beto O'Rourke, a former Texas Congressman and Democratic candidate for president, speaks from atop the bar at Beancounter Coffeehouse & Drinkery in Burlington on Thursday.

BURLINGTON —-As he drove along the Mississippi River between campaign stops, Beto O’Rourke pined to pull the vehicle over —- yes, he was driving himself —- so he could dip his toes in the water.

“I just don’t feel like you can come this close to it and not,” O’Rourke said.

When his staff told him there was not enough time to stop, O’Rourke groaned.

“All right, then,” he conceded. “Some future visit we’ll do that.”

That must have been one of the rare disappointing moments for O’Rourke during his trip to Iowa Thursday, which came on the heels of his announcement he is running for president.

O’Rourke, a Democrat and former congressman from Texas, made a spin through southeast Iowa —- making stops Thursday in Keokuk, Fort Madison, Burlington and Muscatine —- on the first day of his campaign. He has public events scheduled Friday in Mount Pleasant and Cedar Rapids.

O’Rourke received a warm welcome from Iowans who greeted him at a local sandwich shop in Fort Madison and a local coffee house in Burlington. The latter was packed by a crowd that would make a fire marshal squirm, and O’Rourke stood on the coffee shop’s bar so everyone could see and hear him.

Roughly 80 people came to Sub Arena in Fort Madison for an event that was not publicly announced.

“I’m pumped. More pumped than when I first met Barack Obama,” said Ernie Schiller of Donnellson after the Fort Madison event.

O’Rourke already had won over Stephanie Brownlee, a 20-year-old Fort Madison woman who came to see him at Sub Arena. Brownlee grew up with Republican parents and was a Republican until four years ago. She voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Brownlee likes O’Rourke because he talks about wanting to fight for all Americans, not just Democrats, and reminds her of John McCain, the former U.S. Senator from Arizona, in the way he shows respect instead of disdain for his political rivals.

“I think he’s amazing,” Brownlee said, adding she believes O’Rourke can be a candidate “who can relate to both sides of the aisle.”

The southeast Iowa region in which O’Rourke campaigned Thursday contains many swing voters, the kind who voted for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but swung to Republican Donald Trump in 2016.

The state senate districts that contain Des Moines and Lee counties, where O’Rourke campaigned Thursday, swung 25 and 30 percentage points respectively from Obama’s 2012 victory margin to Trump’s 2016 victory margin.

“I’ll work with anyone, anytime, anywhere to deliver for Lee County, to deliver for this country. That’s what I want out of our government. I want us to be able to put our differences aside, find the common ground and just to get it done. And the only way you have any hope of doing that is showing up and listening to and learning from the people you want to serve,” O’Rourke said during an interview between the Fort Madison and Burlington campaign stops.

“So I don’t pretend to know the answers for that significant shift between ’08 and ’16. And I don’t even know how important it is, other than to be able to focus on 2020 and beyond, how are we going to truly deliver for these communities. Not to make them solidly Democratic or blue. Their partisan color doesn’t really matter to me. But to invite everyone into the conversation and the partnership to get these things done. And it begins by showing up and, as many people in there reminded me, it continues by coming back.”

While answering questions in Fort Madison, regardless of the topic O’Rourke regularly made calls for unity. O’Rourke, 46, said during the interview he thinks the country is more divided than at any time in his lifetime.

“And the answer to that is not more divisiveness; it’s a concerted effort to unify this country. It doesn’t mean that we won’t still have our differences. ... But it does mean that we can’t see our opponents as our enemies,” O’Rourke said. “If we’re going to get any of these big things done that we all want to do, we’re going to have to find that common ground and we’re going to have to unify.”

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State house reporter for The Courier/Lee Enterprises.

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