KEENE, N.H. — Beto O’Rourke began his rally with a non sequitur.
He told a story of how he was killing time at a park a few hours earlier when he happened upon a woman pounding on a set of drums, with her car parked next to her, and the radio blasting “Any Way You Want It” by Journey.
“And I thought, that is so punk rock!” Mr. O’Rourke effused.
Mr. O’Rourke, the pin-balling presidential candidate from Texas, told the audience that he felt fortunate to have witnessed such “a beautiful, powerful, transcendent moment.” He then got to the point of his story.
Or not: “I don’t even know why I’m telling you this,” he acknowledged. “Except that I had to share this with somebody.”
Mr. O’Rourke’s entire campaign sometimes feels like one giant non sequitur. Where was this story going? Was there a point to it? And did he even care if anyone was taken aback?
The answer that last question would seem to be “no,” and has become especially resonant since Aug. 3, when 22 people were killed in a mass shooting in Mr. O’Rourke’s hometown, El Paso.
In the heightened aftermath of the slaughter, the once-celebrated candidate has found himself restored, or at least closer to, to the place of political prominence he seemed to relinquish from the second he began running for president early this year. “I think I feel differently personally and that can’t help but come through,” Mr. O’Rourke said in an interview, discussing how the shooting had changed the character, if not necessarily the trajectory, of his campaign. “I think El Paso reminded me or brought home for me how urgent this situation is out there in the country right now.”
Mr. O’Rourke has become the most vocal candidate in pushing for tougher gun laws, including bans on the assault weapons used in numerous mass shootings. The issue has provided a kind of emotional centerpiece to a campaign that had seemed to lack one. It has also, in recent days, stirred the most emphatic crowd reactions at Mr. O’Rourke’s events to date, including a standing ovation Saturday at the Polk County Steak Fry in Des Moines, where 17 Democratic presidential candidates appeared.
“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” Mr. O’Rourke said at this month’s Democratic debate in Houston. The refrain — one of the most potent of his campaign thus far — earned him both instant applause inside the hall and near-instant condemnation from gun-rights advocates, some in the form of the threats that he says have become an ominous background companion to his life.
He was also admonished by many Democratic leaders who worried that his vow to take away guns would confirm every caricature of a radicalized left intent on punishing law-abiding gun-owners. “I don’t know of any other Democrat who agrees with Beto O’Rourke,” Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, said in a conference call with reporters.
Mr. O’Rourke said he took pride in getting attacked by Mr. Schumer and President Trump (who had tweeted at him) on the same day. “It shows me we’re doing something right,” Mr. O’Rourke said Thursday, following a visit to a marijuana dispensary in Oakland, Calif. He said that provoking Mr. Trump and particularly Mr. Schumer showed he was willing to speak plainly and directly and not as a normal politician would. Later that day, in a session with reporters, Mr. O’Rourke would taunt Mr. Schumer for doing “absolutely nothing” on guns. “Ask Chuck Schumer what he’s been able to get done,” he said.
To observe Mr. O’Rourke in recent weeks is to witness one candidate’s unfiltered attempt at a midcourse transformation. It’s a shift that has taken him far beyond the norms of a typical presidential primary campaign itinerary, with stops in California to tour Skid Row in Los Angeles, San Quentin State Prison in Marin County and Blunts and Moore, the pot dispensary in Oakland, where he unveiled a plan to legalize marijuana.
For his part, Mr. O’Rourke, says he could give a damn about adhering to the niceties of campaigns, and he has been proving as much with his frequent deployment of four-letter words more incendiary than “damn.”
“Over the last five weeks, I’ve just been focused on saying what’s on my mind, being myself,” Mr. O’Rourke said. “And not really in the slightest being interested in polls, or how things poll, or what you’re supposed to say.”
That’s fortunate, or at least handy spin, given that Mr. O’Rourke’s poll numbers have been stuck in the low-single digits for months, with negligible movement since El Paso. The blessing, say Mr. O’Rourke’s campaign advisers and supporters, is that he is once again the unvarnished candidate that captivated them during his near miss Senate campaign in Texas last year against the incumbent Republican Ted Cruz.
He is still doing some campaigning as it used to exist: talking to people in early-voting states. His audience sizes often number just in the double-digits, which could be viewed as a comedown compared to the thousands that were thronging Mr. O’Rourke during his Senate race last year — including one September rally in Austin featuring Willie Nelson that drew upward of 50,000 people. Did he find this contrast deflating, a reporter asked Mr. O’Rourke after a low-key rally at Keene State College in New Hampshire?
“Oh, I’m really grateful to anyone who would forgo a perfectly fine movie or dinner date to spend some time on a Friday night with a candidate for the presidency,” Mr. O’Rourke replied, offering perhaps the only possible answer a politician could give (what candidate would admit to being “deflated?”).
Mr. O’Rourke still manages to project earnestness with his entire body. He keeps casually dropping in his now-signature profanity because, he explained, being polite and restrained “doesn’t always express the anger or the urgency that I feel.”
His zigzagging trajectory over the last year can be ordered into pronounced phases. Last fall — the peak of his Beto-Mania Phase — ended in a narrow loss to Mr. Cruz. Nevertheless, the hype persisted. “We did not see that coming,” Mr. O’Rourke said of the continued attention, which ushered in a new phase.
Late on election night, a couple of supporters wandered into Mr. O’Rourke’s El Paso home to commiserate. “They were just these drunk dudes in their teens who were bummed out and decided to come to Beto’s house,” Mr. O’Rourke recalled. “They just walked in and were like ‘Hey dude, we’re just so sorry you lost, can I get a selfie with you?’”
“And I was like, ‘Sure, but you can’t just walk into someone’s house like this.’ And they were like ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.’”
Mr. O’Rourke nursed his defeat, set out on a road trip and went to the dentist, live-streaming as he went. He decided to run for president. From the outset, the enterprise seemed to lack definition. He was outshone and overtaken in a crowded field of movement progressives (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren), an established elder (Joe Biden) and new faces (Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris) who seemed brighter than last year’s meteor. He came off shaky and overwhelmed in the first two debates. Beto-mania 2018 seemed far away.
After the Democratic debate in Houston this month, Mr. O’Rourke said he had struggled in the earlier debates because “I suck at acting.” He felt that he had been too scripted and rehearsed before, so he tried to be less so this time. “The first 30 or 40 minutes is like” — he growled out the sound of an explosion, pantomiming a hand-motion over his head that seemed to signify his brain blowing up. (Debates can be disorienting, is what appeared to be his point.)
At one point, Cory Booker was asked whether Americans should abide by vegan diets, as he does. The New Jersey senator replied: “No,” and added, “actually, I want to translate that into Spanish — ‘No.”
“I wanted to kind of like, high-five him across the stage,” Mr. O’Rourke said, and he later commended Mr. Booker for the line backstage. “And then Joe Biden said something really nice,” Mr. O’Rourke said. “And then he and I talked a little bit and had one of those little moments.”
Mr. O’Rourke can sometimes come off like an excited adolescent talking about a campaign-themed teen tour. He is collecting experiences, searching for something authentic.
Here is something authentic: fear, of which there is no shortage in the country, especially around guns. The morning after the debate, Mr. O’Rourke pulled out his cellphone and called up a text message he had just received. It was from an unidentified party inviting him — and not in a nice way — to “come take my AK-47.”
“I have been getting these messages from different numbers, emails, you know,” he said, explaining that people have been arrested after making threats on his life.
Mr. O’Rourke has three young children and is fully aware of what’s possible. No security detail is evident around him. People show up with guns at his rallies and many know where he lives. He has become one of the biggest lightning rods in this hottest of national debates. Does he himself get scared?
“For me, this is a great question,” Mr. O’Rourke said. “I think it goes to the heart of why we haven’t made progress.” He was referring to “progress” in stopping gun violence, not progress as a campaign.
Yes, people are scared, he said, intimidated by the threats and perceived political risks and frightened into silence. “People keep begging us to do something,” he said. “It’s really powerful. And that’s the judgment I fear, more than people threatening us with guns.”
Is this a higher purpose or another phase? At the very least, Mr. O’Rourke has burrowed a place for himself in the 2020 free-for-all, wherever he is headed. He has gotten people’s attention again, including from the president, who tweeted that Mr. O’Rourke’s vow to confiscate some assault weapons had “made it much harder to make a deal” on guns. “Dummy Beto,” is how the president addressed him.
Asked about this in San Quentin, Mr. O’Rourke said he “could care less.”