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U.S. 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro interacts with supporters after a rally in San Antonio, Texas, on April 10, 2019. Photo by Callaghan O'Hare/Reuters

Castro’s sluggish start tests 2020 presidential campaign strategy

SAN ANTONIO — Julián Castro’s run for president followed a fast rise in the Democratic Party: a big-city Latino mayor of San Antonio at age 34, an Obama Cabinet member and a contender for Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016.

But signs of an upward trajectory have been hard to spot in his presidential campaign, which on Wednesday returns to Texas — where, even on his own turf, Castro’s challenges have been laid bare.

He’s been overshadowed by former congressman Beto O’Rourke, who remains a sensation in Texas after his narrow U.S. Senate loss to Republican Ted Cruz. He’s drawn smaller crowds than rival candidates who’ve swung through the Lone Star State. His fundraising has been sluggish, in part because of his earlier choices. Although Democrats long regarded Castro as their brightest star in Texas, time and again he resisted calls to run for statewide office and must now build a supporter list from scratch.

Bigger-name candidates are also struggling for a foothold in a crowded 2020 field, and Castro aides point to a donor uptick in April. But the slow start has nonetheless puzzled some supporters and left a former up-and-comer who delivered Democrats’ keynote speech at their 2012 convention in the back of the pack, not even guaranteed of making the first debates .

“I’d have to say that I’m surprised,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Colin Allred of Texas, a friend of Castro’s who worked for him when Castro was President Barack Obama’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development. “That a former mayor of a major city, a Cabinet secretary, someone who has executive experience, who is young, who fits that important demographic, who is intelligent, qualified — that he hasn’t generated more coverage and interest.”

READ MORE: What does Julián Castro believe?

On Wednesday, Castro will join much of the Democratic primary field in Houston for a candidate forum hosted by She The People, an advocacy group focused on political leadership for women of color. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont will also hold his first rallies in Texas since his last run for president in 2016.

Sanders led the 2020 Democratic field with $18 million raised in the first quarter. Castro pulled in just $1.1 million, which was less money raised in three months than the reported single-day hauls of some other candidates, including Pete Buttigieg, the early breakout sensation of the race who is mayor of South Bend, Indiana, which is a fraction the size of San Antonio.

The slow start is testing Castro’s trust in the long game that brought his carefully plotted career to this stage. At an event in New York on Monday night, Castro brushed off why he’s been overshadowed by Buttigieg, who, like Castro, is young and a Harvard graduate. He said voters will come around to seeing he better represents a new era of leadership.

“I’m not interested, necessarily, in being the front-runner in April of 2019. What I want is to be the front-runner in the spring of 2020, when the voting actually starts,” he said.

At 44, Castro is among the youngest in the field and the only Latino, and he projects a steady calmness that is the opposite of President Donald Trump’s stormy bluster. He remains the only candidate to roll out an immigration policy plan , was the first to visit Puerto Rico and has pledged to campaign in all 50 states.

But to some, he’s also seen as too careful or quiet in a field of bigger names. He remains shy of the 65,000 donors needed to lock in a spot on the debate stage, though he still has a good chance of getting there. He raised more than a half-million dollars in the first two weeks of April, about half of what he raised in the first quarter total.

Aides say that there’s no need for urgency and that Castro plans to begin talking about education and housing, which plays to his experience in Washington.

“This is not the first time in Julián’s life he has been told he’s going to have to compete with people who have resources he doesn’t have. So we came in knowing that,” Castro campaign manager Maya Rupert said.

Domingo Garcia, the national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said the ethnic diversity of the country needs to be represented on the debate stage.

“But he still needs to find kind of a breakout moment and an issue that really galvanizes his base and his candidacy,” he said.

Jennifer Hernandez is as natural a supporter of Castro as they come. She voted for him as San Antonio mayor, graduated from his high school and made time on a work night to attend one of his rallies. But she’s still undecided.

“I’m also looking at Beto and Biden, of course,” she said, referring to former Vice President Joe Biden, who is expected to enter the race. Castro is “from here, he knows the people here, we know him. That’s why we’re here, to support him. The other candidates come here, I’ll be there, too.”

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