Like many of the candidates on Wednesday night’s presidential debate stage in Miami, Julián Castro needed to win over a national audience of potential voters who largely didn’t know who he was.
In large measure, he succeeded.
The former San Antonio mayor and HUD secretary, who had been on the outskirts of early polling, emerged as a debate-defining voice on his signature issue of immigration. In a tangle with fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke on the subject, he also delivered a stinging rebuttal that echoed through the evening: “I think that you should do your homework on this issue.”
Castro also clearly outlined steps he’d take as president on a handful of other issues: He said he would ensure abortions were covered under his healthcare plan, that he would push gun control measures through what he hoped would be Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, and that he would reform the nation’s policing system to decrease disproportionately African-American and minority deaths in police-involved shootings.
Castro, the race’s only Latino candidate, also regularly referenced his family’s history as he competed for attention on the debate stage. He referenced his grandmother, who at age 7 immigrated to the United States. He alluded to his Chicano activist mother Rosie’s early struggle to support him and his twin brother Joaquin.
It was a message primed to resonate in Miami, with richly diverse Hispanic communities that have also drawn the attention and focus of President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. Just the day before, Vice President Mike Pence and President Trump’s campaign team had made a play for the Latino vote, rolling out a new coalition effort headlined by Pence and Florida’s lieutenant governor, Jeanette Núñez. The party’s chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, had also appeared with Núñez earlier Wednesday at the famed local landmark Cafe Versailles, criticizing Democratic policies as socialist.
In response to a question about how he would first tackle immigration if he took office, Castro explicitly said he would roll back Trump-era policies, including obstacles to putting forth asylum claims he said led to the widely-published photograph of a drowned father and daughter trying to cross the border.
The photograph of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his daughter Valencia, he said, “is heartbreaking. It should also piss us all off.” To applause, he added, “it should spur us to action.”
His immigration plan, which distinctively also calls for the repeal of part of a federal law to decriminalize crossings over the border, spurred one of the most fiery moments of the night. Castro and former congressman O’Rourke had each made their stances on immigration key priorities and clashed on Castro’s position.
After Castro called out O’Rourke for disagreeing on decriminalizing border crossings, O’Rourke said he had pushed for a “a comprehensive rewrite of our immigration laws,” as Castro tried to interrupt him. “If you do that, I don’t think it’s asking too much for people to follow our laws when they come to this country.”
But Castro fired back, “I think that you should do your homework on this issue. If you did your homework on this issue, you would know that we should repeal this section.”
In a debate where time speaking quickly became a measure for how much attention candidates got in their first national foray, Castro emerged toward the top of the pack. He ranked fourth among the candidates in terms of total time allotted, according to a Washington Post tally.
He was buoyed by answers on gun control, in which he said he expected he would be able to change federal laws with the backing of a future Democratic House and Senate. He touted his experience as the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, pushing sustainable rebuilding after natural disasters, in an answer about climate change.
He also outlined how he said he would ensure women were paid fairly, urging the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and legislation “so that women are paid equal pay for equal work… If we want to be the most prosperous nation in the 21st century, we need to make sure that women are paid what they deserve.”
About halfway through the night, search traffic for his name surged 24-fold. The additional attention may also lift Castro’s chances of continuing to remain in the primary crowd — a sentiment his campaign leaders reinforced after the debate concluded.
“I thought it was a home run,” said campaign manager Maya Rupert. “He has the personal story and incredible amount of experience and a lot of passion. It was everything I hoped that people get a chance to see tonight.”