By 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, well over 100 students and older voters were packed like sardines in the main hallway of the Young Student Center at Keene State College, waiting to see what all the fuss was about.
The only space on the floor was reserved for a wooden bench next to the reception desk.
The man set to stand on that bench, and address that crowd, was running late.
Democratic presidential candidate and former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke — who has gone by the Spanish nickname for Robert, pronounced “BEH-toe,” since he was a schoolboy — was supposed to speak at 6:20 p.m., but got delayed driving himself and some campaign staffers some eight hours from an event at Pennsylvania State University.
Finally, at around 8:15 p.m., after broadcasting the final leg of the trip on Facebook Live and being introduced by former state senator Molly Kelly of Harrisville, O’Rourke took the impromptu stage to the kind of applause more common at an early 2000s Aaron Carter concert than a New Hampshire stump speech.
O’Rourke began his speech on the topic of immigration, touting the dynamism of his hometown of El Paso, with the largest bilingual and binational workforce in the Western Hemisphere.
While the former congressman was certainly laying out a critique of President Donald Trump, O’Rourke did not focus on him and established a motif: uniting the country, overcoming differences and holding up a high level of respect in political discourse.
“The fact that he was so close with (U.S. Sen.) Ted Cruz — obviously in a red state, in a state like Texas — that really impressed me,” Hope Daley, a sophomore film major at Keene State told The Sentinel when asked why she is supporting O’Rourke for the 2020 nomination. “I have listened to a lot of his interviews and rallies and stuff, and I really liked what he was saying to the Latino population (in) a border state.”
Not everyone in attendance was ready to support O’Rourke.
Noah Smith, a 10-year-old from Keene who came to the rally with his father, Charles, was hanging a hand-written sign over the railing of the balcony overlooking the crowd that read, “STOP killing babies! It’s murder!”
Charles’ sign read, “Thank God for TRUMP.”
Charles Smith said he found out about the rally about an hour before the scheduled start time while listening to the radio in the car.
“So I pulled up to the house, and I said, ‘Hey Noah, do you wanna have some fun? There’s a Democrat that believes in aborting little babies that’s gonna be at the college,’ ” Smith said. “... And he said, ‘Dad, let’s go!’ ”
Smith said that he took issue with O’Rourke’s pro-choice views because “that’s the only thing he came out and said he’s for.”
At a Monday event in Cleveland, O’Rourke answered a question from an audience member about third-trimester abortions by saying that it should be the woman’s choice and that he trusts women.
Smith said he tries to ease Noah into politics, “very easy, very gentle, because there’s a lot of things you can’t tell a child.”
Noah had an 8 p.m. bedtime, and he and his father left the event before O’Rourke arrived.
Although some of the crowd had filed out around 7:30 p.m., after it was announced that O’Rourke would not arrive until after 8 p.m., O’Rourke still drew thunderous applause with every crescendo in his speech.
He answered questions from the crowd on issues ranging from student loan forgiveness to Palestine to the opioid epidemic.
After posing for photos with anyone willing to wait in line long enough to get one, O’Rourke told The Sentinel in a press gaggle that he did not know New Hampshire has issues with broadband service like parts of Texas do, but that an approach similar to one taken toward electrification during the New Deal could work.
“FDR devised the Rural Electrification Administration to make sure that rural communities all across this country could have electricity, so that that 1st-grader could read by electric light in Silverton, Texas, the same way they could in Boston or New York,” O’Rourke said.
The Rural Electrification Administration, a New Deal agency, offered loans to rural organizations for setting up their own power systems in an era when it was unprofitable to extend transmission lines over distance.
“And from every single person that I’ve spoke to in these rural communities, they do not want a handout, they do not want government to solve all of their problems, but they do want a partner with whom they can work,” O’Rourke said. “And that model from 1937 and the REA, where you established cooperatives, where everyone came together to make sure that you could make those communities competitive, might very well be the model that we’re looking for going forward in this country.”
The former Texas congressman, who raised $6.1 million in the first 24 hours of his campaign from online donations, added that many issues facing rural communities cannot be fully addressed without expanding Internet access.
“So trying to finish your education, starting a business, doing anything that you wanna do that involves the Internet becomes almost impossible,” O’Rourke told The Sentinel before calling it a night around 10 p.m. “And then back to this point I’m trying to make about dwindling smaller and rural communities, attracting people back if they can’t get online is gonna be close to impossible.”