POLK CITY, Iowa — A red minivan pulls into the driveway of Joan and Steve Kennedy in this suburb of Des Moines, Iowa. The man behind the wheel — tall, gangly, easygoing — jumps out of the car wearing a baseball cap and grinning widely. “Check out my Iowa Cubs hat. Pretty cool, right?”

Hunching his back a little — he stands 6-foot-4 and likes to be at eye level with people — he hops over to a small group of folks waiting to meet him. A large crowd awaits inside the house, but he takes his time on the walk to the door, shaking hands and posing for pictures. He wears his celebrity well.

He spots a young girl wearing a Beatles T-shirt and stops. “I love the Beatles. I just found on YouTube a version of 'Hello, Goodbye' that’s just the piano and the drums. You can hear Ringo’s genius in it.” When he is told the girl plays the drums, he exclaims “Get out!” and arranges to get her cell number so he can send her the YouTube link, gives her a high-five and says “Glad that you’re here. Right on!” He finally makes it to the entrance to the house, says “Should we do it?” and plunges into a sea of applause.

This is Beto O’Rourke, and he’s running for the Democratic Party nomination for president.

Robert Francis “Beto” (a nickname he acquired in childhood) O’Rourke — who served in Congress from 2013 to 2019 — splashed onto the national scene in 2018 when he challenged former Republican presidential candidate and conservative firebrand Ted Cruz for the U.S. Senate in the red state of Texas. O’Rourke lost to Cruz but became a sensation among Democrats for his ability to draw massive crowds, his innovative use of social media and his charismatic personality. His background — which includes time spent in a punk rock band and rebellious teenage years in a computer hacking group called “Cult of the Dead Cow” — his relative youth (he’s 46 but looks younger), and his tech-savvy help him connect easily to a wide swath of younger voters.

For his older supporters, O’Rourke brings back a wistful memory: As he rambled through a recent day campaigning in Iowa in which he visited six houses in a 10-hour span, one of the most common comments heard from people in the crowd was, “He reminds me of John F. Kennedy.”

Still, many Iowans say they want to hear about policy, so where does he stand on the issues?

On health care: “I want health care for all. I want to give you the choice to enroll in Medicare. You would also have the choice to stay in your plan. And we will make prescription medications affordable by allowing us to buy from Canada and have Medicare negotiate with the drug companies.”

Election reform: “We need a new voting rights act with same-day, automatic voter registration, and end the process of gerrymandering. And corporations are not people, money is not speech, so they should not be allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money to purchase the outcomes of our elections.”

Criminal justice and gun reform: “I want to end the federal prohibition on marijuana and end the for-profit prison system,” and “I want universal background checks in every state and to ban high velocity rounds. They are meant to kill internally. They are meant for war. Don’t sell them anymore!”

Immigration reform: “I am for comprehensive immigration reform. This is our moment of truth, this is our time. We should rewrite our immigration laws in our own image. Their very presence is our strength. The only way we can do it is with Democrats and Republicans and Independents listening to each other.”

When asked about the problems of declining population and job stagnation in rural areas of Kansas and other states, O’Rourke said: “Everyone is deserving of being fought for and served. There are real challenges in rural America: Jobs, education, broadband internet access. We have to get broadband access to rural areas. The key is partnering, not imposing, to build partnerships between government and the private sector. So we Democrats deserve to lose if we don’t show up and connect with rural America. We as a party, as a people, have to show up everywhere.”

In his speeches, O’Rourke exudes a sense of optimism and possibility. “All of us are standing up to be counted at this defining moment,” he tells the crowd in Polk City. “But let us not define ourselves apart from others. I’m with you, we’re with each other, and we gotta live that, we gotta speak that. We’ve gotta resist the temptation to descend into denigrating and demeaning our fellow Americans. There’s one person in particular who makes that so tempting, but let’s not take the bait, right? We’re better than that.”

That’s where O’Rourke is at his best, appealing to what Abraham Lincoln called, the “better angels of our nature,” saying, “We’re not a fearful people, we’re courageous, bold, aspirational, ambitious people. Allow us to be distinguished by those characteristics.” And while a cliché, O’Rourke’s speeches — in tone and cadence — actually do sound like Kennedy: “Let us not be defined by our differences, instead let us be known by our ambitions, the resolve, the service, and yes, the sacrifice that we will employ to achieve them.”

O’Rourke has an uphill climb. For starters, the two offices he has held — El Paso, Texas, city councilman and member of the U.S. House of Representatives — are not traditional springboards to the presidency. The last person to move to the White House from the House was James Garfield in 1881, which didn’t work out well for Garfield. Secondly, in any other year, O’Rourke’s unique background and natural charisma would make him an instant front runner — think of Barack Obama in 2012. But the 2020 Democratic field is not only the largest in history, but the most interesting and diverse, as well.

On the campaign trail, the always-upbeat O’Rourke is not concerned with those obstacles. He argues that his brand of optimistic progressivism can appeal to a broad swath of people, including rural Republicans, who are tired of being ignored.

“Anything of consequence I’ve done has been the result of compromise, listening and working with people,” he says. “We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”