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Data: NewsWhip; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

With his blunt words, "Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15," Beto O'Rourke saw a bigger spike in online attention than any of his 2020 Democratic rivals in the 3 debates, according to data from NewsWhip exclusively provided to Axios.

Why it matters: O'Rourke identified the right issue at the right moment. Since the El Paso and Dayton shootings, guns have risen to the forefront of the national conversation. For 3 straight weeks, and for 6 of the last 7, stories about guns have generated more interactions on social media than any other issue.

By the numbers: Stories about O'Rourke generated more interactions (comments, likes, shares) on social media following last week's debate than for any other candidate in the previous 2 debates.

  • The 33 biggest articles about O'Rourke last week were all about his position on guns.
  • The slant of those pieces spanned the political spectrum: from straightforward news to cheering from the left and skewering from the right.

The big picture: While online interest in mass shootings typically lasts just 3 weeks after the event, activism around gun violence has been more sustained than usual since the August massacres.

  • Immigration, which had been the top issue throughout much of 2019, is now in second place behind guns.

Between the lines: Spikes in online interest for Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris and Julián Castro have preceded subsequent polling surges in the Democratic primary. But each has been followed by a corresponding tumble back to Earth.

  • Already, O'Rourke has jumped ahead of Cory Booker in polling and pulled even with Andrew Yang.

Our 2020 attention tracker is based on data from NewsWhip exclusively provided to Axios as part of a project that will regularly update throughout the 2020 campaign.

See all past editions of the tracker here.

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