During a night of tense exchanges on the Democratic debate stage in Houston, four candidates made a point of offering kind words to rival Beto O’Rourke for his handling of the mass shooting last month at a Walmart in his home town of El Paso, Texas.
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The former Texas congressman raced home from the campaign trail on the day of the shooting last month, which killed 22 people and injured 24 others. He later canceled a series of campaign events.
O’Rourke has since relaunched his campaign and has emphasized gun control and sharply criticizing what he describes as President Donald Trump's racist rhetoric.
"We must take the fight directly to the source of this problem," O’Rourke said of the president, as he returned to the campaign trail some two weeks after the shooting. "I want to be the leader for this country that we need right now and we do not have ... I want to be the kind of leader for this country that El Paso has raised me and taught me to be."
Former Vice President Joe Biden was the first candidate to bring up O’Rourke.
While saying that recent efforts in gun control activism show promise for real change, Biden interrupted himself to say, “The way he handled what happened in his hometown is meaningful.”
Biden initially referred to the former congressman by his first time and then corrected himself.
“Beto’s good,” O’Rourke responded.
Senator Kamala Harris of California praised O’Rourke, saying “God love you for standing so courageously in the midst of that tragedy.”
And Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar said, “I so appreciate what the congressman’s been doing.”
Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey also spoke emotionally about witnessing the aftermath of a shooting shortly after moving to Newark, New Jersey, a city he would eventually lead as mayor.
“I'm happy that people like Beto O'Rourke are showing such courage now and coming forward and also now supporting licensing,” Booker said. “But this is… what I'm sorry about -- I'm sorry that it had to take issues coming to my neighborhood or personally affecting Beto to suddenly make us demand change.”
For his part, O’Rourke invoked both the El Paso massacre as well as another Texas shooting, in Odessa, Texas, where seven people were killed by a shooter who used an AK-47.
“There weren't enough ambulances to get to them in time," O’Rourke said. "Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We're not going to allow it to be used against fellow Americans anymore.”