Senator Cory Booker records a video with supporters, staff, and volunteers after the Democratic Hall of Fame event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on June 9.
Danny Wilcox Frazier—VII for TIME

Cory Booker Was a Rising Star. Inside His Plan to Become the Next Big Thing, Again

June 24, 2019

It’s more than an hour before the largest gathering of 2020 candidates in Iowa to date, and Cory Booker is getting mobbed on the streets of Cedar Rapids.

Reaching over a low wall of signs spelling out his name, the New Jersey senator hugs supporters and shakes their hands. Sunlight bounces off his bald head. He jumps in the bed of a pickup and takes the microphone, roaring over the fans cheering him on, telling them it’s this kind of organization that will win the Democratic presidential nomination.

Booker makes his way down a sidewalk his fans have decorated with chalk on his behalf, crosses the street and walks into a DoubleTree hotel, where he’ll soon be the first of 19 candidates to take the stage for the Iowa Democratic Party’s Hall of Fame event. All of them are hoping to say something in their allotted five minutes that will resonate with Iowans—or, better yet, have a viral moment that goes national and gives their campaign a spark.

Meantime, Booker shakes more hands. Takes more pictures. Gives more hugs.

This is how Cory Booker thinks he can win the Democratic nomination. Months into the race and on the cusp of the first primary debates, Booker remains mired in the middle of the pack, drawing 3% or lower in most national and state polls, trailing several of his Senate colleagues. The talented senator, long billed as one of the party’s rising stars, has yet to have a breakout moment. He’s won fewer headlines than several other candidates. He’s pulling in plenty of money, but his first-quarter fundraising numbers were arguably disappointing, given his ties to big Democratic donors. But Booker believes national momentum is still built little by little, voter by voter, town hall by town hall.

It’s a time-tested strategy. What’s not clear, however, is whether it’s the right one for the 2020 Democratic primary. Booker is competing for attention, money, and even staff with more than 20 other candidates—some of whom, like South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, have had A Moment that propelled them past Booker.

For years, Democratic insiders and voters alike have tabbed Booker as a promising presidential candidate. Booker, 50, entered the race with a compelling backstory, a reputation of woke-ness, and a message of love. He’s a United States senator, a former mayor, a charismatic speaker, a vegan; he even dates a famous actress, Rosario Dawson. But there’s no laboratory, no secret formula, no focus group that can guarantee any of this is enough anymore. In some ways the predictions that Booker would be a formidable contender for the nomination have come to seem like the kind of conventional wisdom that belongs in the era before the 2016 election, whose takeaway was that what you thought you knew wasn’t really how the world worked at all.

Booker stands for a portrait in downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa on June 8.
Danny Wilcox Frazier—VII for TIME

And because of the way he has structured his campaign, with a “brick by brick” mentality encoded in its DNA, Booker’s bid is emerging as a test of whether the tried-and-true methods of presidential politics can prevail in modern America.

“I don’t want to be breaking away in the polls right now,” Booker told me the day before the Hall of Fame event. “The people that are usually ahead this far out don’t go on to get the nomination. So I think that this is – these times the polls are meaningless and they deal a lot more with name recognition and popularity because a lot of folks haven’t even tuned in to this election. So the metrics that I pay attention to are really on the kind of organizations we’re building on the ground, the kind of response voters are having to your message.”

On a clear, hot Saturday in early June, I rode with Booker in the back of a van traveling from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City, a cooler rattling around behind us and multiple aides in the seats ahead of us. He had a packed agenda, and everything had run a little behind schedule, but Booker was full of energy.

I asked if he got carsick and he said no, though he added he’d had a stomach bug while on the trail. “To have a stomach virus and have to get up and go in front of events when your stomach is telling you you would rather be praying to the porcelain urn,” he said, “took a level of grit that I had to muster that proved to me that I’ve got reservoirs of strength when I need them, physically.”

Booker speaks with a community member in Des Moines' East Village neighborhood during the Capital City Pride Festival on June 8.
Danny Wilcox Frazier—VII for TIME

How the New Jersey senator and former Newark mayor got here—in the running-for-president sense, not the back of the van—is a story that dates to shortly after Donald Trump’s election, when people started asking him about running for president. By 2017 he was seriously considering it.

“I realized what was holding me back was fear,” Booker told me. “I was always taught very directly by my mother that you don’t make fear-based decisions when it comes to your life, I make faith-based decisions. And so I think that finally got me to the point where I decided to go.”

On the trail, Booker often talks about love and unity. He says this election shouldn’t just be about Trump, and often says he’s running because of what he stands for — among his outlined policy positions are sweeping gun legislation including licenses for guns, an extension of the criminal justice reform legislation he’s already worked on, and a proposed White House Office of Reproductive Freedom—not just what he’s against.

What I wanted to hear from Booker was the answer to a simple question: What exactly is his path forward?

It’s clear that his path begins in Iowa, where Booker’s organization is consistently mentioned by unaffiliated Democratic operatives as one of the best in the state, on par with Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s. Joseph O’Hern and Mike Frosolone, Booker’s senior Iowa adviser and Iowa state director, are talented operatives with deep connections throughout the state. Booker’s rolled out an Iowa Steering Committee that includes several local endorsements. He’s also been known to call into house parties when not on the ground himself, which Iowa Democratic strategist Matt Paul points to as an example of how impressive their organization strategy has been.

Pastor Dr. Damian Miguel Epps, Senator Cory Booker, and Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker pray before the Youth Empowerment Day service at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on June 9.
Danny Wilcox Frazier—VII for TIME

“It’s follow up, and they’ve done really smart politics,” Paul says. “They’re finding unique ways to find a personal touch when they don’t necessarily have the candidate.”

Booker has made a heavy investment here, both for strategic and personal reasons, he says. His grandmother was born and raised in Des Moines, and he has extended family in the state. (His campaign puts the number at 80 family members living in the Des Moines area.) He told me he grew up coming to family reunions in Iowa. At his events, his family is sometimes in the audience.

Prior to running, he’d spent plenty of time building political goodwill, from headlining the Iowa Democrats’ Fall Gala last year to lending his star power to the man who challenged and came close to beating Iowa Rep. Steve King.

But all these efforts haven’t translated yet to polling success. Even as we talked, The Des Moines Register released a poll with a 4-point margin of error that had Booker at 1%, tied with Andrew Yang, Jay Inslee, Tulsi Gabbard, John Delaney, Julián Castro, and Michael Bennet. At the same time, buried in that meager showing was a glimmer of hope. More than a third of respondents said they were “actively considering” Booker—a sign he has plenty of room to grow his support.

Community members enjoy coffee and breakfast before the Youth Empowerment Day service on June 9.
Danny Wilcox Frazier—VII for TIME

Talking to voters at his events lends credence to both figures. Democrats genuinely like Booker, who’s skilled at retail politics. He nerds out with fans about being a Trekkie, snaps selfies, and films clips saying hi to a family member who couldn’t be there.

At the Capital City Pride festival in Des Moines, he took an HIV test as press impatiently waited outside the trailer, but didn’t grandstand about it. At a service at Cedar Rapids’ Mt. Zion the morning of the Hall of Fame event, he gave a recent high school graduate who led a class walkout after two teens died of gun violence his personal cell phone number. These are the kind of things Booker does without thinking twice about them; many presidential candidates wouldn’t think to do them at all.

And yet support for Booker hasn’t calcified into the kind of coalition he needs to be competitive. Many voters say he’s on their shortlist. They could absolutely see him as president, and they would definitely get behind him. But Liz Warren has a plan. But Bernie Sanders is my guy. But Joe Biden is more electable. “He’s probably in the top five right now,” Pete Easton, a 33-year-old resident of Davenport, says of Booker. “I think it’s just there’s so many choices that are all good that it’s just hard to commit.”

Booker had the advantage of being on the national stage prior to running for president, and therefore began the race with a higher national profile than some of the Democrats polling above him. Yet the senator believes he’s still introducing himself to the electorate. He told me that after a recent speech in California, a voter came up to him and said, “I didn’t know you were black.” He presented it as evidence that the campaign is still in its opening innings.

A journalist records video before remarks by Senator Cory Booker in the Grand Ballroom of the Double Tree Cedar Rapids Convention Complex during the Democratic Hall of Fame event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on June 9.
Danny Wilcox Frazier—VII for TIME

“When they learn about who I am, what my message is, how much I believe in us, we’re gaining support every single day. Gaining online contributions, thousands of them every single week. People are liking what they see and we are building, building, building to win in Iowa, win in New Hampshire, win in Nevada and South Carolina,” Booker says. “And I’m very confident I’m going to be the nominee of the party.”

It’s clear that Booker is breaking through in some ways. He was so swarmed with fans at a brewery on the edge of Ames that Saturday, where he was appearing between New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand for a Story County Democrats event, that he had to be introduced three times before he finally appeared to take the microphone.

And just days before the first Democratic debates, the candidate is drawing plenty of attention. He took a direct shot at Biden over the former vice president’s comments about working with segregationist lawmakers. The back-and-forth largely took place on June 19, or “Juneteenth,” a holiday commemorating the emancipation of slaves, and after Booker had testified that same morning at a House of Representatives hearing on reparations.

“Frankly, I’m disappointed that he hasn’t issued an immediate apology for the pain his words are dredging up for many Americans. He should,” Booker said in a statement, and tweeted an iconic Civil Rights Movement photo of black men holding “I am a man” signs during the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike.

“Apologize for what?” Biden shot back. “Cory should apologize. He knows better.”

Booker speaks with supporters after the Democratic Hall of Fame event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on June 9.
Danny Wilcox Frazier—VII for TIME

Maybe it turns out to be his moment; certainly Booker thought enough of the exchange to fundraise off it. Or maybe that moment is still to come.

“We’re building this campaign brick by brick,” Booker told me. “And I’m pretty proud of what we’ve accomplished this far. And I know that we have things going on in my campaign that are the envy of people that might be having you know, so-called national media moments who would love to have what we have going on here in Iowa.” Booker’s gameplan doesn’t depend on a moment, but it certainly leaves room for one.

The van arrived in Iowa City, where Booker was due to record a Political Party Live podcast in front of an audience. “I think I counted like eight ‘moment’ questions,” Booker said of our interview as he got out of the van. He argued that the only reason there’s talk of A Moment is because the press makes it so, and reiterated his belief that it’s the ground game that wins elections.

My line of questioning seemed to stick with Booker. “I get the viability question all the time,” the senator told the podcast audience. “I just had a reporter ask me like nine times, about well, how are you gonna—you’re not doing well in the polls, and I’m like, please. This far out, the people winning in the polls were not the people that usually become the nominee.”

The next morning at Mount Zion, Booker spotted me and motioned for me to come over. He put his arm around me, and as we walked to the nave, he apologized for putting me on blast during the recording the night before. “I wasn’t trying to attack you yesterday,” he said.

It was a small, human moment that captured Booker’s sincerity, and a striking contrast to his refusal to apologize to Biden.

Booker speaks with Iowa State Director Mike Frosolone after a day of campaigning in the Grand Ballroom of the Cedar Rapids Double Tree Convention Complex following the Democratic Hall of Fame event on June, 9.
Danny Wilcox Frazier—VII for TIME

By luck of the draw, Booker ended up speaking first at the Hall of Fame event. He’d be setting the tone for the day, an opportunity to stand out. As he took the stage to Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day,” his supporters stood on the far side of the convention hall holding light-up signs.

Booker gave a perfectly fine speech. He touched on mass incarceration, abortion, health care and the need for workers to earn a living wage. He told the audience that beating Donald Trump is the floor, the bare minimum of what the nation needs to do, but it was not the ceiling. It was an abbreviated version of his stump speech, but there was nothing that set Booker apart from his Democratic rivals.

“This election is not a referendum on one person, in one office. It’s a referendum on who we are, and who we must be to each other and for each other,” he said. “Donald Trump wants this election to be about him, on his terms and his turf. That’s how he wins. We win when we rise. With grace and grit, rise. With patriotism—love for our country and love for one another. We will not stay in the valley of darkness and fear. We will rise. We will lift up our voices, we will raise our sights, we will win this election, and America, we will rise.”

He wrapped up before the Oscars-like music had to be played to shoo him off the stage. His moment would have to wait for another day.

Write to Lissandra Villa at lissandra.villa@time.com.