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Beto O’Rourke makes early impression in Pennsylvania visit

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke, center, thanks students as he leaves the The Hub Robison Center on the Penn State campus in State College, Pa., Tuesday, March 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke is making an early impression in Pennsylvania, a late-voting state that may yet play a role in the crowded 2020 Democratic presidential primary contest.

An animated O’Rourke spoke Tuesday for 50 minutes to a crowd of hundreds in a Penn State auditorium, promising to take his campaign everywhere, including Republican strongholds. Later, speaking to reporters, he suggested that he’d support doing away with the Electoral College.

The Texan’s appearance was easily the splashiest of any Democratic presidential hopeful who has ventured into Pennsylvania this year. He attracted a bank of TV cameras and waded patiently through a crowd of hundreds of fans in Penn State’s student union who shouted questions or sought autographs, selfies and handshakes.

Many who came to see him said they were drawn by his youth — he is 46 — and his rising star reputation after he narrowly lost his bid for U.S. Senate in Texas in November’s election. They didn’t leave disappointed, struck by his willingness drive his own car, mingle with crowds and answer questions, including one criticizing him for spouting platitudes.

Later, on his way out, he told reporters that “there’s a lot of wisdom” in scrapping the Electoral College system, saying it puts some states out of play in presidential elections. O’Rourke suggested that changing the Constitution to adopt a popular vote for president would ensure that every voter counts.

The idea has traction among Democrats, since Hillary Clinton netted nearly 3 million more votes in 2016 than Republican Donald Trump, yet lost the Electoral College and therefore the White House.

Pennsylvania was one of the states that swung narrowly to Trump, helping deliver his victory.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts also reiterated her support for eliminating the Electoral College while on her Democratic presidential campaign swing through Selma, Alabama.

O’Rourke made his stop in Pennsylvania on a seven-day, six-state tour before he climbed into a minivan and, taking the wheel, headed to the early voting state of New Hampshire.

Onstage in Pennsylvania, he fended off a question suggesting his voting record in Congress didn’t reflect his “big ideas,” echoing criticism from some that he was too moderate in Congress.

He disagreed with another questioner that he speaks in platitudes, insisting he is specific about where he stands, whether advocating for universal pre-kindergarten, legalizing marijuana, arresting pharmaceutical executives instead of people with addiction, or backing universal health care legislation in Congress named “Medicare for America.”

“In every single policy area, I’m trying to describe not just the goal and the aspiration, but the path that we will take to get there,” O’Rourke responded onstage. “I understand if we disagree or come to different conclusions. That’s the genius of our democracy.”

That democracy, he said at another point while transitioning from the urgent need to fight climate change to the influence of corporate campaign contributions, “is as broken as it’s been in our lifetimes.”

“It is captured, it is corrupted, it is being attacked from without, it is being attacked from within,” he said.

He spoke at length about humankind having just 12 more years to combat climate change and supporting the Green New Deal, a sweeping environmental plan backed by liberal Democrats. If the planet warms just another degree Celsius, he said, “we are screwed.”

“That is the term the scientists use,” he said.

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Associated Press writer Elana Schor in Selma, Alabama, contributed to this report.

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