NEWTON, Iowa -- Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke visited an 8th grade civics class Monday and found students ready with tough questions about school shootings and climate change — and not willing to laugh at the usual campaign trail jokes he uses to make adults chuckle.
Tyler Stewart teaches civics at Berg Middle School in Newton, about 30 miles from Des Moines, the Iowa capital. His class includes lessons about voter access, and students followed O'Rourke's near-upset of Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas last November while they were studying Texas' strict voter ID laws.
Stewart invited the former congressman to visit and — amid campaign visits across the state that kicks off presidential primary voting — and O'Rourke accepted.
More than 40 students piled into a classroom and O'Rourke began with a brief introduction that echoed comments he makes several times a day while campaigning. When he joked about his Republican mother voting for him during the Senate race, an adult listening from the back was the only one who laughed. Ditto for comments about finding rare independent voters in Texas.
But things grew emotional moments later when 14-year-old Milan Underberg cried openly as she asked about the "little or no effort" that the federal government has made to stop school shootings. Her voice breaking, she said, "I'm afraid that, one day, I'll go to school and I'll never come out."
"I apologize," she concluded of the tears. O'Rourke responded softly, "No, you're good."
O'Rourke thanked her for demanding answers on a difficult political issue in the most "personal, powerful terms possible. It's the only way that we're going to get the change that you want and you deserve."
He repeated his customary calls for banning assault weapons and instituting universal background checks for those purchasing firearms nationwide, adding that, like the civil rights movement, change on this issue will only come from younger generations who force "people in power to do the right thing."
Afterward, Underberg said she was happy with O'Rourke's answer and, before posing for a cellphone picture with her, the candidate said, "Thank you so much for your question and the way that you asked it."
Stewart asked about how O'Rourke would compete against Trump if he were to make it through the primary, given that the president's insults of political rivals are sometimes so vulgar that he can't share them with his class.
O'Rourke said the key was not to respond but to call out the president for the adverse effects of his words.
"We don't have to get into the name-calling, the pettiness the bitterness, the partisanship," he said.
Asked about his lack of early laughs afterward, O'Rourke nodded and said: "It's, yeah, maybe a little bit of a different audience." But, he added, "The best thing that I could have done is just listen to them and answer their questions."
Iowa's Democratic primary caucuses are Feb. 3 and Stewart, who said he'd also been in contact with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's campaign about paying a similar visit to his class, said to O'Rourke that in February "if you're still having around, we'd love to have you back."