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As Primaries Near, Booker Campaign Fights To Stay In The Conversation


Six Democrats have qualified for next month's presidential debate. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker has not. His campaign is now making a last-ditch effort. NPR's Scott Detrow has more.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: When Cory Booker showed up at the New Hampshire statehouse the other week to officially put his name on the primary ballot, Secretary of State Bill Gardner pointed out a picture of Jimmy Carter. Booker, struggling in the low single digits in poll after poll, immediately leapt for the comparison.


BILL GARDNER: He was a former governor. No one had any idea who he...

CORY BOOKER: He was an underdog. Polling at 1% this month. Trust me, I - and he talked about decency and grace and kindness everywhere he went. And he ended up winning.

DETROW: Booker and his campaign set a meticulous, organizing-focused plan when he entered the race in January, and they've stuck to it. He says those metrics, not polls, are what he's looking at.


BOOKER: From the crowds that we're getting that are coming out to my events to the support from people in New Hampshire donating to my campaign to again leading this campaign in local elected officials who have heft and influence.

DETROW: Politicians, especially politicians trailing in the polls, love to say the only poll that matters is on Election Day. But that's not the case in this presidential primary. Along with fundraising, early polls determine who gets the visibility of the televised debate stage. While a lot of Democratic voters like Booker, not many are ready to say he's their first choice. So as the debates have gone on, Booker has slowly crept from the middle of the debate stage to the far end of the row, where he was at the last debate.


RACHEL MADDOW: And we are going to start tonight with Senator Booker. The floor is yours.

BOOKER: Thank you, Rachel. It's an honor to be here tonight. I have not yet qualified for the December stage. I need your help to do that. If you believe in my voice and that I should be up here, please go to Please help.

DETROW: Booker needs to hit 4% in four polls over the course of two weeks. He hasn't done it yet. Two national polls that came out this week had him at 2%. Many of the campaigns that have been cut from debates have complained about the Democratic National Committee's rules. Booker's campaign manager, Addisu Demissie, does not.

ADDISU DEMISSIE: Look, I think they're the rules. We're in the game. We're going to play the rules as they've been laid out.

DETROW: Demissie put out a memo this week detailing how the campaign is trying to make the cut. It's finally going to start spending money on advertising in early voting states. And organizers are going to ramp up efforts to convince people to fully back Booker. So far, Demissie says outreach has mostly focused on introducing the senator and former Newark mayor to voters.

DEMISSIE: Really, most voters, we believe, are going to be making their decisions - their ultimate decisions - about who to vote for in these last two months and really probably in the last two weeks. And so you got to ramp up your persuasion efforts in this moment. And that's exactly what we're doing.

DETROW: Booker has a lot of work to do just to make the debate threshold, though, let alone catch front-runners like Joe Biden. Then again, his campaign message is all about overcoming odds.


BOOKER: Because that's how we do big things in America. We do them together.


BOOKER: We beat the Nazis. We beat Jim Crow. When the Russians put up Sputnik, we said, yeah, that's nice, but we're going to the moon.

DETROW: Those national polls this week showed between 50 and 64% of Democrats say they could change their mind between now and their primary or caucus. Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.

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