Cory Booker Dips a Toe Into New Hampshire as 2020 Decision Nears

Cory Booker Dips a Toe Into New Hampshire as 2020 Decision Nears


MANCHESTER, N.H. — Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey says he will be deciding about running for president over the holidays. But as he blitzed through New Hampshire on Saturday in a whirlwind of selfies and soaring rhetoric about Americans finding “common purpose,” the 49-year-old Democrat sounded less like a candidate in a tentative early audition than one finishing off a dress rehearsal.

He chatted up diners in a Nashua coffee shop, speechified to a packed Manchester auditorium, gave sit-down interviews to local news media, met with Democratic influencers and was slated to attend three house parties in different cities across the state.

In dark jeans, a checkered blue dress shirt under a blue sweater and Nike hiking boots, Mr. Booker more than looked the part of a New Hampshire primary contender.

“This country has enough hate, enough bigotry, enough anti-Semitism,” he said in 20 minutes of remarks to about 300 party officials and activists in Manchester, the state’s largest city, speaking without notes and without mentioning President Trump. “What we need now is courageous actors who call to the conscience of our country a higher moral imagination, who call for a revival of civic grace.”

State Representative Peter Schmidt sought out Mr. Booker afterward, calling him “reverend” for his impassioned delivery.

“Come back again,” Mr. Schmidt urged.

“I have a feeling I will,” Mr. Booker replied.

New Hampshire Democrats — who go second in the presidential nominating calendar after Iowans — said Mr. Booker has been among the most active in courting them ahead of 2020. Raymond Buckley, the state party chairman, pointedly introduced Mr. Booker to the crowd by saying no one this year had raised more money for the state Democratic Party and its candidates than Mr. Booker.

“He’s the best friend New Hampshire Democrats had in 2018,” Mr. Buckley said.

At a time when leading Democrats have often defined themselves in opposition to Mr. Trump — and activists across the country have proudly branded themselves “the resistance” — Mr. Booker’s slate of appearances offered an on-the-ground test for his more inclusive brand of politics that at times can feel like a throwback to a bygone era.

“You cannot lead the people if you do not love the people,” Mr. Booker told attendees at a house party in Nashua, where he only made passing mention of Mr. Trump’s name once. “Love is not a soft word,” he added. “It is hard.”

In a brief interview, Mr. Booker said he understood the desire among some Democrats for a more confrontational and combative tone in the Trump era. “I know there’s a lot of folks who may have an appetite for that,” he said. “It’s just not who I am, and I will continue to try to be as fearlessly authentic as I can.”

Will Mr. Booker’s approach work? “If it doesn’t, it doesn’t,” he said.

Mr. Booker has already carried his message to 24 states during the 2018 midterms, including the four that kick off the presidential nominating contest, campaigning for more than 40 candidates and raising more than $7 million for Democratic causes and campaigns, according to his aides. His New Hampshire swing is the last one on the calendar before his self-imposed timeline to make a final decision about running for president.

Back home, state lawmakers have cleared the path for Mr. Booker’s run. In November, the New Jersey governor signed a law that allows Mr. Booker to seek both the presidency and re-election to the Senate in 2020.

There is certainly interest in Mr. Booker: The fire marshal cut off access to Mr. Booker’s speech at the state party’s celebration on Saturday (though the room did not seem particularly full), sending extra people to a nearby overflow room.

Accompanied on Saturday by three aides, Mr. Booker is further along in his New Hampshire outreach than some other would-be candidates. He and his team are reaching out to potential staff, and Mr. Booker has made calls to winners in the midterm elections, which saw Democrats take over both chambers of the State Legislature. Both new legislative leaders got personal calls from Mr. Booker.

Still, few are making any commitments in what is expected to be a crowded field of more than a dozen candidates that could include liberal senators from two neighboring states: Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who won the New Hampshire primary in 2016.

Mr. Booker has a local political sherpa guiding him to the proper house parties and supplying a steady list of who to call. The guide, Jim Demers, is a New Hampshire lobbyist who was a key early supporter of Barack Obama’s 2008 primary campaign when Mr. Obama was a senator.

Mr. Booker’s appearance at Saturday’s victory party, Mr. Demers noted, was the same event at which Mr. Obama made his New Hampshire debut in 2006, though that marked the first time Mr. Obama had stepped foot in the state and he was greeted by greater fanfare. The hosts of the Nashua house party that Mr. Booker attended Saturday also hosted Mr. Obama’s first house party.

“I think the Booker approach is effective,” said Jim Donchess, the mayor of Nashua, who met with Mr. Booker on Saturday morning for nearly an hour. “We need to heal some of the divisions and mistrust.”

Joining Mr. Donchess and Mr. Booker over coffee was Cindy Rosenwald, a newly elected state senator to whom Mr. Booker had directed some of his donors to support in 2018. She said she appreciated the two maximum-sized contributions she had received from supporters of Mr. Booker. “It was totally significant,” she said.

Mr. Booker was also in the state in late October, campaigning for some local Democrats shortly before the midterm elections. While in town then, Mr. Booker also had a meet-and-greet dinner with a few dozen local Democratic officials and political brokers at a Manchester restaurant.

The dinner turned out to be the same evening as the clinching game of the World Series for the Boston Red Sox. Televisions broadcast the game in the background as the political types lingered with Mr. Booker. Some called it a sign of his 2020 allure that many still attended, though a few did slip away before the final out.

Mr. Booker’s formidable social media presence would be a potential advantage in 2020, though his often-packed Instagram feed was conspicuously quiet on Saturday. One woman who ran into Mr. Booker at the Nashua coffee shop said she already followed him on Facebook. “I’ve seen so much of your stuff everywhere,” the woman, Lisa Coffey, told him.

When another woman in the coffee shop noted this was not his first trip to the state, he stroked his chin.

“You begin to wonder,” he said with a grin.



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