Thursday’s debate at a historically black university in Texas offered Cory Booker and other second-tier candidates a chance to differentiate themselves and move up among the scrum of Democrats vying for their party’s presidential nomination.
It was too early Friday to determine whether the junior senator from New Jersey — or any of the other low-polling candidates among the 10 participants who shared the stage at Texas Southern University in Houston — had moved the needle among potential voters.
But Booker did manage to grab more airtime than all but former Vice President Joe Biden, the frontrunner, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. According to an analysis conducted by the New York Times, he spoke for nearly a full minute longer than Bernie Sanders.
The former mayor of Newark also had what was arguably the best laugh line of the night, responding to a question by Univision’s Jorge Ramos about whether he espoused his meatless, vegan diet for all Americans, even those in carnivore-laden Texas and Iowa.
“Um, you know, first of all, I want to say no. Actually, I want to translate that into Spanish: No,” he said.
Overall, the debate showcased profound ideological divides between the Democratic Party’s moderate and progressive wings. Much of the post-mortem on the faceoff — the first in which all the eligible candidates were together on the same stage — centered around the performance Biden, the faltering frontrunner who parried attack after attack from liberal rivals on everything from health care to immigration.
Biden dominated significant parts of the evening — the Democrat’s third presidential debate — responding strongly when Sanders and Warren, the liberal senators who are his closet rivals, assailed him and his policies.
Unlike prior debates, where Biden struggled for words and seemed surprised by criticism from fellow Democrats, he largely delivered crisp, aggressive responses. He called Sanders “a socialist,” a label that could remind voters of the senator’s embrace of democratic socialism. And Biden slapped at Warren’s proposed wealth tax.
A two-term vice president under Barack Obama, Biden unequivocally defended his former boss, who came under criticism from some candidates for deporting immigrants and not going far enough on health care reform.
“I stand with Barack Obama all eight years, good, bad and indifferent,” Biden declared.
His vulnerabilities surfaced, however, in the final minutes of the debate, when he rambled when pressed on a decades-old statement regarding school integration.
Perhaps the most talked-about exchange after the debate — at least involving the second tier of candidates — was a remark by Julian Castro that was taken by many to be a swipe at the former vice president’s age.
“Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago? Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago?” he said, referring to a response by the 76-year-old on a health care question.
Commentators were split Friday about whether the heated encounter would help or hurt Castro, a former HUD secretary.
Polling data from before the debate shows Booker to be mired among the second-tier candidates in the large Democratic field. An average of polls current through this week, compiled by Real Clear Politics, has Booker with 2.3% — well behind the front-runners, Biden (26.8%), Sanders (17.3%) and Warren (16.8%), and also trailing Kamala Harris (6.5%), Pete Buttigieg (4.8%), Andrew Yang (3.0%) and Beto O’Rourke (2.8%). Also on the stage Thursday were Amy Klobuchar (1.2%) and Castro (1.0%).
Jeronimo Cortina, a professor political science at the University of Houston, said he thought Booker’s performance could raise his standing by a few percentage points. He also believed Booker had effectively conveyed a message of party unity.
Madeline Gierkey, a senior at the school, also thought Booker had handled himself well.
“Cory Booker? I actually think he did really well,” she said. “I was thoroughly impressed especially with his response to the issues, whenever it comes to criminal justice reform and everything.”
During his time on camera, Booker address a range of topics. Here are some edited highlights:
During his introduction: “The differences among us Democrats on the stage are not as great as the urgency for us to unite as a party, not just to beat Donald Trump, but to unite America in common cause and common purpose.”
On health care, after noting that he favors Medicare for all: “And as a person who has an ideal, I know we cannot sacrifice progress on the altar of purity, because people in my community, they need help right now … this must be a moment where we as Democrats can begin to show that we cannot only stake and stand our ground, but find common ground, because we’ve got one shot to make Donald Trump a one-term president. And we cannot lose it by the way we talk about each other or demonize and degrade each other.”
On racism in America: “… we know Donald Trump’s a racist, but there is no red badge of courage for calling him that. Racism exists. The question isn’t who isn’t a racist. It’s who is and isn’t doing something about racism.”
On criminal justice: “Our criminal justice system is so savagely broken. There’s no difference in America between blacks, whites and Latinos for using drugs or dealing drugs. But if you are African American, you are almost four times more likely to be arrested and incarcerated, destroying your lives.”
On gun violence: “This is a crisis of empathy in our nation. We are never going to solve this crisis if we have to wait for it to personally affect us or our neighborhood or our community before we demand action.”
On dealing with China: “There’s one point we’re really missing on the stage right now, which is the fact that Donald Trump’s America-first policy is actually an America-isolated, an America-alone policy … We cannot go up against China alone. This is a president that has a better relationship with dictators, like Duterte and Putin, than he does with Merkel and Macron. We are the strongest nation on the planet Earth, and our strength is multiplied and magnified when we stand with our allies in common cause and common purpose. That’s how we beat China.”
From a question about professional setbacks: “The lesson I learned of resilience is to trust people, because the power of the people is always greater than the people in power. And the test of America right now is not a referendum on Donald Trump, it’s a referendum on us and who we are and who we’re going to be together. We need to use this moment in history to unite in common cause and common purpose, and then there’s nothing we can’t do together as a nation.”
The Democrats vying for president get to do this all again in mid-October in Ohio. The fourth round of debates will be held again two nights instead of one, because billionaire Tom Steyer has qualified.
This story contains material from the Associated Press.
Read more about Sen. Cory Booker as he continues his campaign to become the next president of the United States at The Booker Beat.