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By Dartunorro Clark

DES MOINES, Iowa — Cory Booker’s voice is shot. Standing on stage before hundreds of potential voters in the state that boasts the pivotal first-in-the-nation caucus, Booker, in a raspy voice that normally booms, is adamant his message of love, hope and unity can win him the Democratic nomination and, ultimately, the presidency.

“They’re going to say, ‘Oh my gosh, more candidates talking about love and hope; oh my God, how are you going to beat Donald Trump with that?’” the New Jersey senator, 49, told the packed venue at his last event in the state following a two-day blitz through five other cities in below-freezing temperatures.

“I want to see that man out of the White House, but I was called to dream bigger than that. … This is a test to see how much we can unite America,” he said.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, speaks at a campaign stop at the Des Moines Social Club in Iowa on Feb. 9, 2019.Scott Olson / Getty Images

It could be a risky message given that a recent Monmouth University poll found Democratic voters prioritizing “electability” over values in 2020. But dozens of potential voters and community leaders who spoke to NBC News as Booker zipped through Mason City, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Marshalltown and Des Moines said they were compelled by his story of turning around a beleaguered urban city as mayor of Newark, his work as a senator and his message of bringing the country together.

Rita Robinson, 63, a member of the Cedar Rapids chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, saw Booker speak for the first time at his stop at the city’s African American museum and made up her mind.

“He is my candidate. He talked to all of us in the room,” she said, noting the crowd was largely white with a few black residents in attendance. “I think they look at Cory and remember when Obama was president — they backed him because they believed in the message.”

Robinson added, “He’s got the vocabulary, the know-how and knows how to throw in a little bit of the hood. … He’s like, ‘I’m different, but I’m not different from you, and I know how to get things done.’”

‘I had to run something’

A question that dogged Booker in his pitch to voters in Iowa is what makes him different from the other Democratic candidates. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Kamala Harris of California have already visited the state, and so far there is not much the contenders disagree on when it comes to hot-button issues like health care, education and climate change.

But at a campaign event in Mason City, Iowa, Booker pushed back on Harris’ idea of doing away with private health insurance to achieve single-payer health care, or Medicare-for-all. He also frequently touted his role in shepherding Trump’s criminal justice reform bill through the Senate last year, even noting how he won over the support of Iowa’s Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley.

Former mayors are rarely candidates for the White House, according to a 2018 study in the journal American Politics Research. But Booker plugged his work in Newark as a microcosm of what he can do at the national level. He claimed to have turned around its schools and improved its local economy.

“I’m friends with these folks,” he said of his Democratic rivals in remarks at a packed brewery in Marshalltown. “I’ve written legislation with these folks. But I want to tell you some things unique about me so you just know: I had to run something. And it wasn’t just something — it was a very challenged city. I had to manage it through the worst economic crisis of our lifetime. I had to stand in the saddle and make difficult, difficult decisions.”

Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, speaks to guests at a campaign event at the First Congressional United Church of Christ in Mason City, Iowa, on Feb. 8, 2019.Scott Olson / Getty Images

Booker, who is vying to be the nation’s second black president, also made overt references to race in his first visit here as a 2020 candidate. African Americans make up a crucial voting bloc of the Democratic party and represent 3.8 percent of Iowa’s total population. Booker’s message of unity was often centered on improving race relations in the country, focusing on issues such as income inequality, voter suppression and racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

He also discussed at length his family’s struggle to integrate a white New Jersey suburb in the 1960s, saying real estate agents would not sell them homes until white volunteer lawyers worked together with black housing activists to confront the issue.

“We have to be able to talk about race in America,” Booker told a largely white crowd at the brewery in Marshalltown. “You can’t have reconciliation without truth-telling.”

He added, “Right here in Iowa, people meeting in barns, white folk and black folk, built the greatest infrastructure project this country has ever seen: The Underground Railroad,” referring to the network of white and black Americans who aided slaves through a network of safe houses to free states.

“I think he’s got it, he’s like magic,” said 72-year-old Ruth Cody Brewer, who lives in Forest City and works on the Wing Ding committee, a grassroots fundraising effort for the state Democratic Party, after a campaign event in Mason City. “He energized me today.”

Other voters, however, were not completely sold but noted that Booker stood out among the declared candidates.

“I think it’s time for a reformation. Is he a great reformer like the Kennedys or the Roosevelts? I don’t know,” said Mark Suby, a Mason City resident and retired city parks superintendent. “But he’s certainly on my list.”

‘I’m confident in my toughness’

For Booker, another important issue is trying to win over Trump voters, saying “they feel lost, they feel forgotten, they feel even attacked.”

“I believe strongly they voted wrong, but if we don’t speak to their pain, if we don’t talk with our ideas and our heart and our empathy and our policies that will deal with these issues, we’ll never get those voters back,” he said.

He also spoke at events about his friendships with Republican lawmakers, such as former Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both of Arizona, and reaching across the aisle in the Senate to get legislation passed.

“I’m running not just to beat Republicans, I’m running to unite Americans,” Booker said at an event in Mason City.

He added, “At this time in our country, we don’t need to fight fire with fire.”

Chris Peterson, a 64-year-old farmer who was an Iowa delegate for Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, said Booker is going to “take the torch and have courage,” but “unity is only going to go so far.”

“Don’t compromise the issues away to get Republican support,” he said. “Democrats have caved over the years.”

But Booker, a former college football player, told voters he can take whatever is thrown at him, especially if he’s up against Trump, a self-professed counterpuncher.

“There is nobody in this race tougher than me … ” Booker said. “But we have got to stop in this country thinking that to be tough you have to be mean, to be strong you have to be cruel. That is a lie. The most powerful force in this universe is defiant love. And I will stick by that.”

“If we try to fight Donald Trump on his turf, not only will both of us get muddied, but the country suffers as a result. And so I’m confident in my strength. I’m confident in my toughness.”

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The Trump administration tries to rewrite the story of America

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WASHINGTON — For all of the focus this week on the state of the economy, Trump’s tariffs and the 2020 Democratic horserace, there’s been an even more significant story staring us in the face.

The president and his administration are trying to rewrite the story of America.

Earlier this week, for example, you had acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli revising Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

“Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” Cuccinelli said, announcing the Trump administration’s policy to deny green cards to legal immigrants who use government benefits.

Then yesterday, you had the president of the United States urging Israel to bar two Democratic lawmakers from entering Israel.

“It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep.Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!”

Israel followed through in barring Omar and Tlaib. But this morning, the country backed down somewhat, allowing Tlaib to visit her grandmother in the West Bank on humanitarian grounds.

Freedom of speech. Freedom of dissent. A country built by immigrants.

Those have been the cornerstones of the American story.

But we’re seeing Trump and his administration opt for a new foundation.

As NBC’s Benjy Sarlin observed: “There’s obviously one especially big example looming over all of it, but Trump’s eagerness to egg on world leaders against his own government and its representatives is among his biggest departures from recent norms and would have been a five-alarm fire under any other president.”

Trump disses NATO — again

Speaking of five-alarm fires, remember when Trump criticizing NATO used to send the political world in a panic?

Well, he continues to criticize NATO; it’s just that the outrage has died down.

Here was Trump last night at his rally in New Hampshire: “Folks. I got NATO to pay an extra $100 billion. They weren’t paying. They were delinquent, many nations were, except for seven, many nations weren’t paying what they were supposed to be paying so we’re supposed to protect them.”

[snip]

“[B]ut I’m tired of paying for other nations anyway, I have to be honest with you. And today our nation is stronger than ever before, we’re now stronger than ever before.”

2020 Vision: Biden leads the pack, Sanders falls to third place

A new Fox News poll released on Thursday finds Joe Biden leading the Democratic presidential horserace, followed by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

The numbers:

  • Biden 31 percent (down 2 points since July)
  • Warren 20 percent (up 8 points)
  • Sanders 10 percent (down 5)
  • Harris 8 percent (down 2)
  • Booker 3 percent (up 1)
  • Buttigieg 3 percent (down 2)
  • Yang 3 percent (unchanged)
  • Klobuchar 2 percent (down 1)
  • O’Rourke 2 percent (unchanged)

No other Democrat gets more than 2 percent in the poll, which is a qualifying survey for the Democratic debates.

On the campaign trail

Today: Cory Booker, Julian Castro and Pete Buttigieg address a Black Church PAC forum in Atlanta… Beto O’Rourke heads to Mississippi…. And Andrew Yang, John Delaney and Steve Bullock are in New Hampshire.

Saturday: Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders address the Black Church PAC forum in Atlanta… Yang, Bullock, Delaney, Cory Booker, Michael Bennet and Bill de Blasio are in New Hampshire… Buttigieg travels to South Carolina… As does Amy Klobuchar… And O’Rourke stumps in Arkansas.

Dispatches from NBC’s embeds

Pete Buttigieg yesterday finished his two-day tour through southeastern Iowa at a town hall in Oskaloosa when a woman discussed her current immigration journey. NBC’s Priscilla Thompson reports, “She’s in the process of applying for citizenship and worries that she could be deported and taken from her baby – even though she’s a lawful citizen with a green card. Buttigieg expressed the need to streamline the immigration process and address the backlog. ‘It’s time to talk about what it really means to honor family,’ he said. ‘Part of it is making sure we want families to stay together and that has implications for our immigration policy.’”

Julián Castro was asked what his health care policy would entail, since there’s no information on his website, while at a Working Families Party Q&A. NBC’s Maura Barrett reports, “Castro said they’re working on rolling out several plans and it will be up soon; summarizing, ‘We should strengthen Medicare for the people who are on it, and then expand it to anybody who wants it.’”

Data Download: The number of the day is … 26 points

Twenty-six points.

That’s the margin of Joe Biden’s national lead among Democratic primary voters who say they prefer a candidate who builds on Barack Obama’s legacy, according to a new Fox News poll.

Overall, 48 percent of Democratic want a candidate to build on Obama’s legacy, and Joe Biden gets support from 42 percent of these voters — followed by Elizabeth Warren at 16 percent, Bernie Sanders at 9 percent and Kamala Harris at 6 percent.

That’s compared with 47 percent of Dem primary voters who want to take a different approach from Obama, and the horserace among these voters breaks this way – Warren 26 percent, Biden 21 percent, Sanders 11 percent and Harris 9 percent.

Tweet of the day

The Lid: Nothing odd about that

Don’t miss yesterday’s pod, when we gave you the rundown on the upcoming odd-year elections.

ICYMI: News clips you shouldn’t miss

The Washington Post looks out how President Trump has moved to “punish his rivals” through his official powers.

President Trump has mused about the possibility of buying Greenland from Denmark.

Israel has granted permission to Rep. Rashida Tlaib to visit family in the West Bank after denying her broader visit to the country.

El Paso’s Republican Mayor says President Trump called him a RINO (Republican in Name Only) during his visit to the city following the recent mass shooting there.

Trump Agenda: Cautious eye

The Trump administration has a cautious eye on the uncertain economy ahead of 2020.

A federal judge denied the Trump administration’s appeal arguing migrant children might not need soap for shorter stints in custody.

2020: Barack and Joe

The New York Times has a deep dive into the relationship between former President Obama and his running mate turned 2020 Democratic frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Beto O’Rourke returned to the campaign trail Thursday, arguing he’ll bring his campaign to the communities targeted by the administration’s policies.

A federal judge won’t let Georgia use an electronic-only voting system in 2020.

President Trump urged former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to run for Senate during his New Hampshire rally.



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Pelosi Brexit threat quashed as Donald Trump hails Boris and 'fantastic' UK-US trade deal

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BREXIT Britain’s potential future trade deal with the US has been placed under threat with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issuing a warning over the Good Friday Agreement despite US President Donald Trump hailing the British Prime Minister and talking up a future trade deal.

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Trump snubs John McCain during bill signing intended to honor him

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WASHINGTON — Congress wanted to honor the ailing Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. President Donald Trump did not.

In extended remarks during a visit to Fort Drum in upstate New York to sign the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 — this year’s version of an annual bill that sets defense policy — Trump chose not to mention the former prisoner of war and Senate Armed Services Committee chairman who is battling brain cancer. He even omitted McCain’s name when citing the title of the bill.

The two men have long been fierce critics of each other, with McCain calling Trump’s supporters “crazies” in 2015 and Trump retaliating by questioning whether McCain, who was subjected to torture in a Vietnamese prison camp, is really a “war hero” because “he was captured.”

The snub at Fort Drum, home to the combat aviation brigade of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, did not escape the notice of McCain’s allies.

“For those asking did I expect Trump to be an a—— today. No more than I expected it to be Monday,” Mark Salter, McCain’s longtime aide, wrote on Twitter.

McCain’s condition — dire enough that a recent HBO documentary on him was titled “John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls” — has not stopped Trump from deriding the Arizona senator at political rallies. Though Trump does not use his name, he tells crowds that he would have been able to repeal Obamacare if not for a thumbs-down sign from one senator — McCain.

The senator’s own statement included Trump’s name in the headline and in a preamble written by staff. But the words attributed to McCain did not.

“I’m very proud that the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 has been signed into law,” he said.

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