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Vice President Julian Castro?

By Scott Conroy - August 28, 2013

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“My entire reason for being in politics has been to try to create for people the kind of opportunity that I had,” Castro said. “And the issue of educational achievement for the United States, but particularly for cities like San Antonio, is the most significant long-term challenge. And pre-K4SA was meant to address the point in the educational journey that we know can make the biggest trajectory change on.”

Wearing a solid-blue tie and dark suit that accentuated his relatively slight frame, Castro greeted incoming students on Monday morning at one of the two city-funded educational facilities that are currently operating full-day pre-kindergarten programs.

He received plenty of encouragement and words of appreciation from parents, and he appeared comfortable enough when interacting with them. Still, Castro does not ooze the natural confidence that’s typically in the DNA of most high-level politicians.

It was clear that gripping-and-grinning is not his forte as a politician, a handicap that he readily acknowledges.

“I don’t live up to the Bill Clinton standard, that’s for sure,” he said later in the day, as he worked his way through a sweetened iced tea.

Castro has an identical twin brother, Joaquin, who is a first-term Texas congressman. Though Julian was the first one to seek public office, the first to start a family, and appears to be first in line to ascend to national office, Joaquin -- younger by one minute -- has always been the more outgoing twin, according to longtime friends, family, and the mayor himself.

Rosie Castro, who was a leader of the radical political movement La Raza Unida in the early 1970s, said that Julian has “never been the back-slapping kind of guy,” in spite of being “good with people.”

“He’s very kind of a calm individual -- doesn’t get excited easily,” she said of her eldest son. “Even as children, when they made friends, Joaquin was usually the one that first made the friend. He’s just a little bit less reserved than Julian.”

There is another significant limitation to Julian’s retail politicking skills that was on full display Monday as he greeted constituents in this sprawling city, where 63 percent of residents are Hispanic.

Outside the elementary school, the mayor fielded questions from several local journalists without incident, but when a local Univision reporter began asking him questions in Spanish, things got dicey: Castro handled the first question in Spanish but then asked, a bit sheepishly, to switch over to English in answering the second inquiry.

The reason: Neither Castro brother is fluent in the native tongue of their grandmother, who spoke to them only in that language when were growing up. Asked for a self-assessment of his Spanish, Castro replied that it was “so-so” and “improving too slowly.”

“What I need to do one day is just to go to Mexico or Latin America for two months, but who has the time?” he said. “If I start speaking it with regularity, I’m sure I’d pick it up quickly, but I don’t get to do it.”

For the time being, Castro splits his days between the parochial work of running a city in which he has a relatively weak level of executive authority and laying plans for a bright future.

After his appearance outside of the pre-school, he retreated to City Hall where he chaired a brief organizational meeting of local officials regarding a truancy commission that was approved by the Texas Legislature. He let others at the table do most of the talking.

Castro travels with increasing regularity and will be in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday (at the invitation of President Obama) to take part in the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington.

A former communications major at Stanford who once wanted to become a journalist, Castro keeps up with national and international events by reading The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post online.

He also scrolls through his Twitter feed throughout the day and sits in on occasional mayoral briefings hosted by senior White House officials in semi-regular, invitation-only conference calls.

In private conversations, Castro demonstrates a firm grasp of the intricacies of the national political chess game, as well as a realist’s perspective on how far a Texas Democrat currently can go at the statewide level.

The lesson of patience that he learned in his 2005 loss may have played a role in his decision to sit out next year’s Texas governor’s race. (His own internal polling showed the extent to which winning would have been an uphill climb.)

Asked if he was relieved that state Sen. Wendy Davis appears set to run for the office Rick Perry has held since 2000, freeing him from any sense of obligation to play the role of a sacrificial lamb, Castro offered praise for the recently minted heroine of Texas progressives before offering a candid assessment of the timeframe for his own ambitions.

“More than anything, I’m relieved that there will be a strong candidate, if she runs; my biggest concern was that there would be no strong candidate,” he said. “But sure, my timeline has been beyond 2014, so it’s certainly helpful.”

Though Joaquin Castro suggested in a New York Times interview three years ago that his brother’s path to Washington most likely ran through Austin, it now appears the route could be a direct one from San Antonio.

So far, at least, Julian Castro is saying all of the right things to be considered for the VP slot. Asked whether he thinks Clinton should run for president again, he did not hesitate in offering what amounted to a pre-endorsement of the former first lady.

“I believe she should and that if she does, she’ll win,” he said. “She’s had an amazing career, understands policy backwards and forwards, and in 2008, I was extremely impressed by her grasp of policy. I believe that she would offer very strong and steady leadership for the United States.”

As the lunchtime interview was coming to a close, Castro sought to dispel any notion that he might actually challenge the Democratic frontrunner-in-waiting, or consider running for president in the event that Clinton decides to stay out of the race.

“I can officially say I’m not running for president in 2016,” Castro said, flashing a bemused grin and throwing his hands up to convey his sincerity.

OK. But what if the allure of a Clinton/Castro ticket becomes too obvious to ignore?

“Then I’ll encourage my brother to step right up,” Castro said with a laugh.

Pressed to consider the possibility in earnest, the tone of Castro’s subsequent response could scarcely have been further from his blanket denial of interest in running for the top spot on the ticket.

“It just seems so far off and outside the realm of what I deal with every day,” Castro said of becoming the 2016 VP nominee. “It’s very flattering, but I can’t imagine that right now.”

Right now, perhaps. But three years is a long time in politics. 

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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