Cory Booker struggles for traction in presidential race

Cory Booker sounded more like a preacher than a presidential candidate as he urged Democrats to vote for someone who could unite America, not just chase Donald Trump from the White House.

“Beating Donald Trump is the floor; it is not the ceiling,” Booker said, his voice soaring. “It gets us out of the valley; it doesn’t get us to the mountaintop. I am running for president because I want to get to the mountaintop!”

Murmurs of “yes!” and “mmm-hmm” rose from the audience of 80 or so, as if they were seated at a Sunday service and not a bowling alley in this speck of a town on Iowa’s Raccoon River. Several pledged to support Booker in the Feb. 3 caucuses that start the 2020 presidential balloting.

But the affirmation and Booker’s exuberant performance last week belied the candidate’s perilous standing in the Democratic race.

The New Jersey senator has been a politician to watch for nearly two decades, ever since his insurgent bid for Newark mayor was chronicled in a 2002 Hollywood documentary. However, now that he is seeking the White House, Booker has fallen well short of expectations as his message, grounded in sweetness and light, collides with the sentiments of Democrats who want to see President Trump not just beaten in 2020 but battered.

“We are not living through a normal political conversation here. This is not Barack Obama going for an open seat talking about hope and change,” said Sue Dvorsky, a former Iowa Democratic Party chairwoman who has been neutral in the race since her preferred candidate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, dropped out. “It doesn’t seem like a message of love and hope and rising is resonating. These are dark and dangerous times.”

Jeff Link, a veteran Iowa Democratic strategist, was blunter still: “Can you really love Trump to death?”

Cory Booker speaks to Iowans last week.

(Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

Booker, 50, is widely considered a better orator than former Vice President Joe Biden, and more charismatic than fellow Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. He has considerably more governing experience than Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., a city with less than half the population of Newark.

Still, Booker is running far behind the leaders in Iowa as well as other early-voting states. His poor standing in polls cost him a place in last week’s presidential debate in Los Angeles, and it’s questionable whether he will make the stage on Jan. 14, when Iowa hosts the next face-to-face meeting.

The candidate, ever smiling, is undeterred. He sprinkles his speeches with uplift — scripture, quotes from Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King Jr. — and flatly dismisses those who say his talk of “love, grace and decency” is not just ineffective but politically tone-deaf.

“I just think that’s so wrong,” Booker told supporters at his Urbandale campaign office, before jumping on the phone and chatting merrily with several potential caucusgoers. Signs on the wall read, “Hope, hype, hustle” and “Love chooses Cory.”

Supporters agree that, in the end, the heart can win out.

Bridget Carberry Montgomery shakes hands with Cory Booker.

Bridget Carberry Montgomery finds Cory Booker “so inspiring” and believes his message can win in 2020.

(Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

Bridget Carberry Montgomery said there were few policy differences between the Democratic candidates, so character is important as she chooses among them. “I’m really looking for candidates that inspire me and will inspire our country and bring our country together,” she said.

“I am a student of faith,” the 44-year-old stay-at-home mom continued, “and he is so inspiring, and everything he says is just so on message.”

Logan Brittain, 49, was undecided until he saw Booker speak last week amid the bowling lanes and tenpins at Adel’s Family Fun Center.

“I just committed to Cory,” said Brittain, a medical device salesman here in west-central Iowa, who had been choosing between Booker, Biden and Klobuchar. “It’s just his message of unity, bringing the country back together.”

The problem is that backers like Montgomery and Brittain are relatively few and far between.

Can you really love Trump to death?

Iowa Democratic strategist Jeff Link

Part of the reason, apart from a message some find cloying, is Booker’s lack of a solid toehold in the crowded field.

“He’s not angry enough; the angry vote is divided between Warren and Sanders,” said Jim Hodges, a former South Carolina governor. “He’s not new enough; Mayor Pete has the ‘new’ vote. Biden has the establishment. He’s sort of been elbowed out of the race.”

South Carolina votes fourth in the nominating process — after Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada — and its large black population was supposed to give Booker, who is African American, a significant boost. But he’s running far behind Biden in the Palmetto State and his chances of overtaking the front-runner, Hodges suggested, rest entirely on how well Booker does before the contest reaches South Carolina.

“If he’s going to do anything here, he’s going to have to have some unexpected success in either Iowa or New Hampshire,” said Hodges, who is unaligned in the presidential race. “If he doesn’t have any success in those two races, he might as well get out of the race.”

Booker and his strategists are mindful of his endangered status and the need for a strong Iowa showing.

The senator was among the first candidates to build a team in the state and has spent more than a year establishing relationships with influential activists. Polling shows that more than half of likely Democratic caucus-goers have a favorable opinion of Booker and only about 1 in 4 have definitely committed to a candidate, meaning there is considerable room for growth.

Booker, in the midst of a recent 11-county, four-day bus tour, invoked former President Obama and former Sen. John F. Kerry — both of whom were far behind in Iowa before surging and winning the Democratic nomination — as he predicted a similar surprise.

“If you’re somebody polling really well … be a little worried, because that’s not what determines the outcome,” he told reporters in a bit of rose-tinted analysis. “The polls never really have.”

Although Booker said he would like to take part in January’s debate in Des Moines, he insisted it wouldn’t be a “death knell” for his campaign if he didn’t make the cut.

Cory Booker FaceTimes his girlfriend, actress Rosario Dawson.

Cory Booker talks with his girlfriend, actress Rosario Dawson, for a Christmas singalong on the campaign trail.

(Seema Mehta / Los Angeles Times)

The prospect certainly didn’t do anything to dampen his high spirits, which were much in evidence as he motored across Iowa in a luxury bus with his name emblazoned on one side and hundreds of red, white and blue stickers with the names of donors on the other.

He bowled two spares at the Family Fun Center, marveled over the Broadway show “Dear Evan Hansen” while discussing the production with reporters, and grazed on popcorn as he took in the new Star Wars movie in Ottumwa. He tried to coax the media into a holiday singalong and, after most reporters demurred, he FaceTimed his girlfriend, actress Rosario Dawson, who led the willing in a chorus of “Silent Night.”

Life will be just fine, Booker said with characteristic buoyancy, if he fails to win the nomination. Already, he and Dawson have begun to make plans just in case. Topping the list: more Broadway shows.

Mehta reported from Iowa and Barabak from Los Angeles.

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