SAN ANTONIO — Julián Castro, in a baseball cap and zip-up hoodie, sipped an iced tea and considered how he could win the Democratic presidential nomination.
“If everybody would just get out of the way,” he said on a recent afternoon, “I’d have a clear path.”
He was only half-kidding.
Mr. Castro is in need of a breakthrough moment. Once considered a rising star in the Democratic Party — he was the first Latino to give a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention — he has been outshined in the ever-expanding field by brighter stars and nonstars alike. While he has many fans in his hometown, San Antonio, where he once served as mayor, he is not well known on the national stage. And with the sudden rise of the former El Paso congressman Beto O’Rourke, Mr. Castro is not even the most well-known candidate in his own state.
Still, during an interview at one of his favorite Tex-Mex restaurants, Mr. Castro seemed relatively unfazed, and maybe for good reason: At age 44, and as the only Latino candidate in the race, he would seem to satisfy the Democratic Party’s desire for youth and diversity, to say nothing of strategists who view Hispanic turnout as an important factor in winning back the White House.
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A former housing secretary under President Barack Obama, he is the sole candidate with cabinet experience. And he is from a border state that Democrats hope they can one day flip into their column.
Mr. Castro also seems well situated in another way: With President Trump eager to make his hard-line immigration stance a central part of the 2020 campaign, Mr. Castro, the grandson of a Mexican immigrant, has already made immigration his signature issue.
Earlier this month, he was the first candidate to introduce an immigration plan, with detailed proposals that included decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings, creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and establishing a “21st-Century Marshall Plan” to aid Central American countries that have a high number of migrants.
Last week, with Mr. Trump swinging through Texas to talk up his anti-immigrant message, Mr. Castro held a rally of his own in San Antonio that was billed as an opportunity for the city, whose population is more than 60 percent Hispanic, to voice its opposition.
“This is the issue that the president has put front and center, so I wanted to put my own vision for immigration up against his,” he said, hours before he told a crowd of several hundred that “this is personal for me.”
It was Mr. Castro’s boldest attempt yet to position himself as a formidable candidate and challenger to Mr. Trump, as images of migrants at the border — in whom he sees the face of his grandmother, he has said — continue to jolt many Americans.
But if this should be a defining time for Mr. Castro, so far it is not.
Though he has drawn some recent notice, including for being among the first of the candidates to support a congressional bill to study reparations, he is in many ways a 2020 afterthought: In a Monmouth University poll of Iowa Democrats conducted April 4-9, Mr. Castro came in ninth in a field of 24 announced and potential candidates, with 2 percent support.
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Some Democrats believe that Mr. Castro’s moment has, if anything, already passed — that his best shot at national success occurred after he gave his electrifying speech at the 2012 convention. Some wonder whether he is too quiet, too inexperienced and too careful to compete in such a crowded, high-powered primary field.
While Mr. Castro tries to brush off the inevitable comparisons to Mr. O’Rourke, whose challenge to Senator Ted Cruz last year turned him into a national celebrity, the attention drawn by Mr. O’Rourke — who speaks fluent Spanish, and whose hometown is on the border with Mexico — has cast something of a shadow over Mr. Castro’s candidacy.
When he left Washington at the end of the Obama administration, Mr. Castro returned to Texas but resisted entreaties to run for statewide office. He finished writing a book, did some teaching and spent time with his family, but some Texas Democrats believe he missed an opportunity to advance his career and gain the kind of political profile that could have fortified his presidential run.
Because Mr. Castro never ran for statewide office, he has not built up a big email list of supporters, and he still has not met the 65,000-donor threshold to qualify for the first Democratic primary debates. In the first three months of the year, he raised only $1.1 million (though his campaign said it had raised over half a million more by mid-April).
“I don’t believe that from the presidential perspective, it was a mistake,” Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, said about Mr. Castro’s decision not to run statewide. “But I do believe that, like Beto, had he run for one of those offices, that he would have done really well even if he wouldn’t have won.”
Mr. Castro is more circumspect, betting that voters will come to appreciate his background and executive experience, eventually. For now, he said, he is focused on building out his campaign team and increasing his grass-roots support. He has pledged to visit all 50 states during his campaign.
“People are going to have their moments,” he said, without naming names but perhaps alluding to Pete Buttigieg, another 2020 candidate and the mayor of South Bend, Ind., whose popularity has grown substantially in the past month. “I would rather have my moment closer to the actual election than right now.”
He ticked off former Republican candidates who surged early, then flamed out, naming Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann.
“I’m sure that’ll come,” he said, “but I don’t just want two weeks in the sun.”
Mr. Castro was born and raised in San Antonio. His grandmother emigrated from Mexico when she was seven. His mother, Rosie Castro, was a prominent civil rights activist in the 1970s.
He went to Stanford, then Harvard Law School, and was elected to the San Antonio City Council in 2001, when he was 26. He ran for mayor of San Antonio in 2005 and lost. Four years later, he ran again and won.
Allies of Mr. Castro praise him for implementing a full-day pre-K program when he was mayor that was funded by increasing the sales tax by an eighth of a cent. They also credit him with helping to revitalize parts of the city, including its downtown district.
His keynote address at the 2012 convention immediately rocketed him into the national political conversation. When Mr. Obama approached him about serving in his cabinet, he demurred, saying he preferred to stay in San Antonio, but he relented in 2014 when he was asked again.
Youthful and soft-spoken, with hair parted on the side, Mr. Castro describes himself as a progressive — he supports agenda items like “Medicare for all” and universal higher education — but is not blazingly so. Friends describe him as methodical and disciplined.
“That’s not his fallback position — to be this extrovert, light-up-any-room kind of guy,” said Jaime Castillo, who worked for Mr. Castro both in the mayor’s office and in Washington.
Mr. Castro is also not his twin brother, Joaquin, who is a United States congressman, though it is hard to tell them apart. (Joaquin once stood in for Julián at a parade; it did not go over well.) Joaquin’s name has recently been floated as a possible challenger to Senator John Cornyn, a Republican, a rumor Julián did not dispel.
“They carry the hopes and dreams of the Latino community on their shoulders,” said Pete Gallego, a former Democratic congressman who represented a district that stretches from San Antonio to El Paso.
Even if Joaquin does not decide to run, Democrats across the country hope that Julián’s presence in the race will inspire Hispanic voters, a group that the Pew Research Center predicts will be the biggest minority voting bloc in 2020.
Mr. Castro hopes so, too, but he also does not want to be pigeonholed as a Latino candidate, and he has taken pains to try and appeal to a broad swath of voters.
“There’s a significance there,” Mr. Castro said about being the only Latino candidate for president. “But it’s not the totality of who I am or what I’m pitching to America.”
What he is pitching, in broad strokes, is that he is someone with a track record in public service who is “trying to bring Americans together instead of tear them apart.” And while some Democrats have suggested that Mr. Castro is in the presidential race simply to get on the ticket — Hillary Clinton had strongly considered him as a possible running mate in 2016 — it is a notion he dismisses outright. “I’m running for president,” he said.
If Mr. Castro is the nominee, he believes that he would carry Texas, Arizona and Florida.
At his anti-Trump rally last week, however, some voters in the modest crowd expressed skepticism that Mr. Castro could break through nationally.
“I’m not too sure he has that in him,” said Samantha Mata, 22, who was born and raised in San Antonio. “I’d like to hope that he could get that light.”
Later that night, Mr. Castro sat at an outside table at a restaurant nearby. Early the next morning, he would fly to Washington to participate in one of CNN’s candidate town halls. As he ate, the local news began showing clips from his rally.
For a moment, before other diners realized the man on TV was in their midst, he looked up and caught a glimpse of himself.