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Dec. 5, 2019, 7:32 p.m. EST

Booker campaign plots rebound in wake of Harris’s departure from race

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By Associated Press

Associated Press
Democratic presidential contender Cory Booker poses for photos after an event in South Carolina on Monday.

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The news of Kamala Harris’s sudden departure from the presidential race came during an all-staff conference call led from Cory Booker’s campaign headquarters in Newark, the New Jersey city that he led as mayor for seven years and that propelled him to national fame. Within hours, Booker dictated a message calling Harris “my friend and my sister,” and a directive was issued to show her team respect at a difficult moment.

The campaign also scheduled a high-profile speech in Iowa.

Booker’s aides have been careful to emphasize that candidate isn’t looking to capitalize on the collapse of his Senate colleague’s White House bid. But they’re also aware that, for a campaign languishing in the polls, this may be one of the last opportunities to turn things around.

“We have all the kindling on the fire. All it takes is one match, and I think we will take off,” Booker campaign manager Addisu Demissie said in an interview with the Associated Press.

They hope that Thursday’s speech in Des Moines, Iowa’s capital city, could be the spark. With less than two months before the Iowa caucuses open the Democratic contest, Booker argued that Harris’ departure forces the party to confront whether it’s truly committed to diversity.

“When an immensely qualified, widely supported, truly accomplished black woman running to lead the party, a party that is significantly empowered by black women voters, didn’t have the resources that she needed to continue here to Iowa, what message is that sending?” he said. “We heralded the most diverse field in our history, and now we’re seeing people like her dropping out of this campaign.”

He bemoaned the field now has “more billionaires than black people.”

It’s a last-ditch attempt by a candidate who has struggled to gain traction — and could face pressure to leave the race if he doesn’t qualify for the next debate this month. Even some of his supporters, such as Iowa state Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, are skeptical about whether he can make it, with just eight days remaining until the qualification window closes.

“The polling threshold is tough,” she said.

Carol Fowler, a veteran South Carolina Democratic activist, said that Booker recently received a warm reception during an event she hosted for him at her home — but that missing the debate would be dire for his campaign.

“I think any of them, at this point, who don’t get in the debate, it’s hard for them to make a case for themselves for why they should stay in,” she said. “And I think if they don’t make the debate, they won’t be able to raise money to keep going.”

This wasn’t supposed to be Booker’s conundrum. As Newark’s mayor, he garnered headlines for shoveling snow and saving a woman from a house fire. His narrative as an Ivy League-educated Rhodes scholar with a compelling personal background and rhetorical skills compared to those of Barack Obama only solidified his status as a Democratic rising star.

But if moving to the Senate was intended to bolster Booker’s credentials for an eventual presidential campaign, that hasn’t panned out. Pete Buttigieg, another mayor educated at top universities who also earned a Rhodes scholarship, has instead emerged as the fresh face in the race.

The most recent Des Moines Register/CNN poll of likely Iowa caucusgoers, conducted in mid-November, showed Booker with just 3% support, around where he’s been throughout his campaign.

Booker’s also faced challenges raising money during the campaign, posting a middle-of-the-pack $6 million haul in the third quarter after making a last-minute fundraising plea in which he warned supporters he’d have to raise nearly $2 million or drop out of the race. Those fundraising struggles mean Booker hasn’t been able to run paid advertising until this past weekend, when he launched a six-figure digital and radio ad buy.

Within his campaign, there’s an awareness that they’re entering a do-or-die phase. One person said Booker staffers have made it known in recent weeks that they’re considering their next steps in case Booker’s campaign ends soon.

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