In nearly six months as a Democratic presidential candidate, Cory Booker has billed himself as many things: He's both an optimist leading with "radical love" and a fighter against political machines. He's both a supporter of "Medicare for All" and an advocate for more incremental health care policies that preserve the private insurance industry.
As the New Jersey senator prepares for a pivotal turn in the spotlight at next week's debate, he's trying on a new role: Joe Biden's chief antagonist.
Ahead of an expected showdown in Detroit, Booker is blasting the former vice president as "an architect of mass incarceration." Speaking to the National Urban League on Thursday, he assailed rivals whom he portrayed as latecomers to the fight against "structural inequality and institutional racism" — implying, without mentioning Biden's name, that his opponent had embraced criminal justice reform to further his presidential candidacy.
One of two black major candidates in the Democratic contest, Booker is homing in on racial justice as he struggles to emerge from the bottom tier of most national polls. He has yet to meet the donor qualifications to participate in this fall's Democratic debate, when tougher rules are expected to winnow the crowded field. Democrats say Booker's new approach to Biden could provide a moment to lift his campaign — or sack it with more baggage.
"There's a path that still exists for Booker, but he needs a galvanizing moment that not only boosts his hopes but also eliminates one of the opponents in front of him," said Democratic strategist Joel Payne, a veteran of Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign. "It's possible, but it's a tough path ahead."
Booker's aides see him as on track to qualify for the September debate regardless of what may take place in Detroit. His campaign remains focused on an early state strategy that takes him to Iowa on Friday for the seventh time since entering the race.
"Cory's performance serves as a validation for the folks who have committed their early support to his campaign" in the Hawkeye State, said Mike Frosolone, Booker's Iowa state director.
Booker's organization is particularly strong in Iowa, where he counts nearly 50 staff members and has won a long list of potent local endorsements. Still, the campaign spent more money than it raised during the second quarter of the year, and Booker's efforts are likely to mean little until he can get what Des Moines lawyer Grant Woodard called "his moment in the sun."
"Something has to happen for him in the national narrative, I think, and he can really start to flex his muscle here," said Woodard, a former Democratic operative in the state.
Booker faces several hurdles at this critical juncture. Biden's camp has responded quickly to his potshots, suggesting the former vice president is more prepared to be hit next week than he was during the first presidential debate when he stammered in answering Kamala Harris.
And, unlike the first debate, he'll have to share the stage with Harris, whose campaign gained ground after she took aim at Biden's recent comments about working with segregationists and his past opposition to school busing. Her broadside was so successful in part because Harris is not known for sharing personal stories.
Booker, in contrast, has built a brand on a personal, uplifting approach to politics. Trying to replicate Harris could make him seem insincere.
Yvette Simpson, chief executive of the progressive group Democracy for America, urged Booker to "speak from a place that's real to him," warning that he has verged on "a stage where it's more platitudes and less authentic." On issues beyond criminal justice, she added, the debates could exert pressure on Booker to be more than "the guy in the middle" who neither directly courts the left nor actively alienates it.
Indeed, Booker has at times edged away from a full-bore liberal approach in his campaign's first months. He has proposed an ambitious, progressive immigration agenda, decrying President Donald Trump as "worse than a racist," but clarified last week that he would not use the term "concentration camps" to describe immigration detention facilities, as New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has.
Booker also hasn't fully endorsed a push by activists on the left to eliminate the Senate filibuster to help a future Democratic president accomplish his or her agenda. And on health care, Booker has joined Harris in supporting Medicare for All legislation but edged away from it on the campaign trail as Biden runs as a sharp critic of single-payer health insurance.
No matter how he's drawn into a clash with Biden on the debate stage, Booker appears firmly on track for one. And he's taking a more pugnacious tone with Trump as well, telling NBC talk show host Seth Meyers this week that he sometimes has to resist the temptation to punch the "elderly, out-of-shape" president.
Penny Rosfjord, a member of the Iowa Democratic Party's state central committee, said that combativeness among candidates "can get dangerous" but suggested that Booker has more room to get sharper given the love-first tone that he started his campaign on.
"I personally think it's the right tone, but he will at times have to get a bit more aggressive with people," Rosfjord said. "He might have to throw some verbal punches here and there."