KEOKUK, Iowa — For a moment, he seemed almost tentative, ducking into a coffeehouse between a tattoo parlor and an American Legion hall — speaking mostly of Texas because it was not clear where else to start.
“I want to hear from you about what it’s like in Iowa,” Beto O’Rourke said, standing on a chair minutes into his first event as a presidential candidate, on his first-ever visit to the state. “Let me share with you what I learned in Texas.”
It was a little after 8 a.m. on Thursday. By 8:30, he had removed his sweater to answer a question on federal marijuana legalization. (He’s for it.) By 8:39, he had perspired enough that his temples glowed a bit. By 8:45, he was recommending music to the locals.
“Blaze Foley!” he told one woman who approached for a photograph, name-checking the late country singer from Austin.
Mr. O’Rourke, 46, learned quite a lot from his failed-but-star-making Senate run last year: how to go viral; how to draw in a volunteer army; how to drive himself from stop to stop, well north of the speed limit, without attracting too much police attention.
And on the first day of his quest for a mega-promotion, as he ferried his team in a rented minivan with Illinois plates, Mr. O’Rourke made plain his intention to transpose his Texas blueprint onto the national stage.
He peppered his remarks with Spanish before almost exclusively Caucasian audiences — swearing sporadically in both languages. He described life in El Paso, where his wife is raising their three kids — “sometimes with my help,” Mr. O’Rourke joked. He told the tale of a West Texas pecan grower when asked about trade policy.
“Our states have something in common, Texas and Iowa,” Mr. O’Rourke concluded a few hours into his trip, comparing the two states’ progress on sustainable energy.
There is likely no better place for this approach than Iowa, whose residents prize face-to-face interaction with candidates and cheer those who visit all 99 counties. (Mr. O’Rourke touched down in all 254 of Texas’ counties during his Senate run.)
Yet Thursday’s travels also highlighted Mr. O’Rourke’s already considerable following outside his home state, with phone-waving crowds waiting to greet him even for gatherings that had not been advertised widely.
Ivy Boddicker, 18, arrived at Mr. O’Rourke’s first event with a “Betomania” button, featuring Mr. O’Rourke with a guitar, and a “Beto 2020” shirt that had been a custom-made Christmas present.
“He seems really nice and really cool,” she said.
Ms. Boddicker hailed his support for immigrants. “And one time,” she added, “he was skateboarding across the stage.”
At Sub Arena in Fort Madison, home to well-stacked deli sandwiches and a $3 cottage cheese potato salad, several guests recalled warming to Mr. O’Rourke as they followed his Senate campaign or in his recent appearance with Oprah Winfrey.
“Have you considered being on the talk show ‘The View’?” one woman asked, suggesting another venue for exposure.
“Folks down with ‘The View’?” Mr. O’Rourke asked the room, coming around without much prodding. “I don’t know that I’m in the business of turning anyone away.”
By midday, he was sitting down with Gayle King of CBS.
In other encounters, Mr. O’Rourke, whose public remarks often lean heavily on stories from voters he meets, seemed to be prospecting for fresh anecdotes in real time.
On a tour of Fort Madison High School, he found a muse in the welding shop leader who was guiding students into durable careers.
“We need to take the lead of Mr. King, who I just met,” Mr. O’Rourke said a short while later in another classroom, where a sign near the door included simple instructions for where to migrate in an emergency: “TORNADO,” with an arrow pointing left, and “FIRE,” with an arrow pointing right.
“I’m so psyched,” Julie Yurko, a math coach for the district, said afterward, wearing a top and earrings with the pi symbol for March 14, National Pi Day. “Fan girl.”
Some students were less animated, barely looking up from their lockers as Mr. O’Rourke passed them. When Mr. O’Rourke informed a Spanish class that he was seeking the presidency, the teacher reacted (“Ay caramba”) more theatrically than his charges.
A few minutes later, Mr. O’Rourke was led into Classroom 310 to make an introduction. “We’ll be back,” he promised the students.
Exactly one of them clapped. Mr. O’Rourke smiled.
“Thanks for clapping,” he said softly.