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Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke greeted an enthusiastic crowd in downtown Phoenix Sunday, blaming President Donald Trump’s incendiary comments on immigration and Congress’ unwillingness to act on gun control for contributing to the mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso in August. 

The three-term congressman, whose unsuccessful but competitive Senate run against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz last year made him a political star among Democrats, has not broken into the top tier of Democratic candidates vying to take on President Donald Trump in 2020. 

But he electrified hundreds gathered around him at The Churchill, drawn to his message of combating climate change, fighting against income inequality and calling for mandatory buyback of assault weapons. He spoke in English and Spanish and dropped an expletive or two before heading to a campaign event in Tucson.

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During the 40-minute appearance in Phoenix, where he stood in the middle of the crowd to deliver a stump speech and take questions, O'Rourke celebrated the contributions immigrants have made to the U.S., challenged those who characterize the border as unsafe and slammed Congress for failing to pass gun control measures that may prevent future mass shootings. 

He opened by reminding the crowd of some of the 22 people killed inside the El Paso Walmart the day before school was to start, and recounting the anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric contained in the shooter’s manifesto. The diversity of his hometown, which lies on the U.S.-Mexico border and is one of the nation's safest cities, offers a path forward for the nation, he said. 

“I want to make sure that a community like El Paso, because of our differences, that we’re a community of asylum-seekers and immigrants — that’s what drove that killer to our hometown, perhaps it also offers the best example, an alternative to this hatred, to this racism, to this violence that we see in America today,” he said to cheers.

“In El Paso, we understand that ou differences are not dysfunctional or disqualifying or dangerous. They are foundational and fundamental to our success and any chance we have of fulfilling our promise as a country.”

O'Rourke: 'Put country before party'

Sunday's appearance in Phoenix was O'Rourke's first as a presidential contender and comes as he is seeking to build momentum for his struggling campaign. 

Climate change, O'Rourke said, is a threat to everyone on the planet, and to future generations. Inaction in the face of science, he said, will reap "the worst catastrophe, the worst hell that we could possibly imagine for every generation that follows ours." The nation must free itself from dependency on fossil fuels and embrace renewable energy, he said. 

During his town hall, O'Rourke also called on salary increases for public school teachers, a new voting rights act to ensure everyone can vote — namely those with disabilities — legalizing marijuana, and safeguarding a woman’s right to choose whether to have abortions. 

He respectfully dispatched a question from a woman in the crowd from an anti-illegal immigration group, who arrived with others who appeared looking for confrontation. The woman called him by his given name, Robert, and asked why he was "pandering to illegal aliens" over those who came to the U.S. legally. 

"Second," she said. "Hands off our guns, Beto." 

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Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke brought his campaign to The Churchill bar in downtown Phoenix, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019. Tom Tingle, The Republic | azcentral.com

The crowd chanted her down while O'Rourke responded by saying in part, "What is a slap in the face to my conscience and the best traditions of this country is taking kids from their parents and putting them in cages." His closing response to her: "Those immigrants pose no threat to you."

In an interview with The Arizona Republic's political podcast, "The Gaggle," O'Rourke said Trump must be held accountable for urging Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden's son Hunter Biden. Asking a foreign country to intervene in U.S. politics, along with allegations that American aid may have been tied to the request, have sparked an impeachment inquiry.

"Here's the challenge for Americans ... if we allow this to stand without accountability, we will have set the precedent that some people are above the law in this country," he said. "And the moment that we accept that is the moment that we lose this democracy for everyone. So this is a moment where we ask everyone to put country before party, country before their own political careers and do the right thing while we still have time."

'My main issue is beating Trump'

Mary Snider of north-central Phoenix said she was impressed with O'Rourke's competitive showing in Texas last year. 

"My main issue is beating Trump," she said. "Anyone who can beat Trump, I would go for — I do like that he's really strong on gun control But I also think we need someone who is strong on the economy." 

Manny Franco, who lived in El Paso until moving to near Tolleson three years ago, came out to show his support, even though he doesn't think O'Rourke can win the nomination. 

"I think he went overboard," said Franco, 67, of O'Rourke's mandatory gun-buyback program of assault weapons. 

Jeremiah Kole of Glendale said he's still weighing his presidential options, although Elizabeth Warren is his favorite. Like Franco, he said O'Rourke misstepped with his gun plan. 

"He shot himself in the foot," said Kole, 27, who said he is an AR-15 owner. "... I think that we definitely need to do something about guns, but saying 'I'm going to ban something outright' is not going to help."

Have news to share about Arizona's U.S. senators or national politics? Reach the reporter on Twitter and Facebook. Contact her at yvonne.wingett@arizonarepublic.com and 602-444-4712.

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Hear the interview with Beto O'Rourke on the Oct. 9 episode of The Gaggle political podcast. Subscribe for free to The Gaggle on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, or wherever you listen to audio content.

Politics Podcast: The Gaggle

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