Cory Booker hopes this was a breakout moment for him, and he plans to return to Iowa to maximize any momentum.
In an interview the day after he took part Wednesday in the first night of the Democratic presidential debates, Booker said he felt good about his performance, that he thinks he did a good job presenting his “heart and passion” to the millions who watched on TV, and that he feels he can build on the debate.
Booker also said he felt pretty good despite getting only about three hours of sleep after the debate.
“For us, it was what we wanted: for more people to discover who I am,” Booker said in a phone interview. “As more and more people get to know me, we see a benefit that people like what they see.”
Booker’s standout moment during the debate came during a discussion about gun regulations. He personalized the issue by speaking about the gun violence he sees and hears about in his New Jersey neighborhood.
“My colleague and I both have been hearing this on the campaign trail. But what’s even worse is I hear gunshots in my neighborhood,” Booker said during the debate. “I think I’m the only one — I hope I’m the only one on this panel here that had seven people shot in their neighborhood just last week. Someone I knew, Shahad Smith, was killed with an assault rifle at the top of my block last year.”
While Iowa does not have a gun violence problem that is comparable to states like New Jersey, with its bigger cities, Booker said he constantly hears from Iowa Democrats that gun control is “a main issue.”
Booker said a push for stronger gun regulations is not just a winning effort in a Democratic primary, but it can be in a general election, too.
“So much of the problem that we have in this debate is what the corporate gun lobby has done ... which is to distort what is common sense,” Booker said. “The only people that have to worry about the agenda I have is gun runners and the corporate gun lobby.”
Booker said he hopes to build on the debate performance, including in Iowa, where he feels his campaign has been creating an organization built to be competitive in the caucuses. He will be back in Iowa in mid-July.
“We’ve been building our Iowa organization and campaigning the Iowa way, which is getting more people on the ground and lots of organizers, retail campaigning across the state,” Booker said. “That’s really important to me, campaigning the Iowa way. ...
“My plan is, it was a great night, we have a lot of momentum, and to build on that momentum.”
There were a few candidates who had similarly big moments during the two nights of debates. And they will face the same challenge as Booker: to take advantage of any swell in voter support.
Kamala Harris turned heads with her exchange with Joe Biden. Pete Buttigieg was lauded for his response to a question about a police shooting in South Bend, Ind. Julian Castro stood out.
It will be interesting in the coming days and weeks to hear from Iowa Democrats, on the campaign trail and in the polls, to discover whether the debates moved the needle for these or any of the other candidates who participated.
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And for any candidates who do receive a “debate bump,” it will be up to them to make it last.
• Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.