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New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker Joins 2020 Democratic Field

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Another day, and another Democrat announces his intention to run for president. Today, it's New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. Many political observers have expected him to take this step for years. As NPR's Scott Detrow reports, Booker's entry into the race kicks the field of declared Democratic candidates into the double digits.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: About 15 minutes after he announced his campaign in an online video, Cory Booker called into Tom Joyner's morning radio show.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "TOM JOYNER MORNING SHOW")

CORY BOOKER: Well, I literally just pushed send on my tweet and Instagram accounts, but this is my first time saying it publicly. I wanted to come on this show, Tom, because of what you mean to so many people in this country.

DETROW: By calling in to the influential African-American radio program, followed immediately by a Spanish-language interview on Univision, Booker made it clear that in a crowded and diverse Democratic field, he'll be working hard to win the support of black and Latino voters.

For the first time in political history, two of the top-tier candidates in the race are black. But Booker is making it clear he'll be running a very different campaign than California Senator Kamala Harris.

Harris, like other Democratic candidates, is focusing on taking the fight to Trump. Booker isn't campaigning on confrontation. Instead, he's framing his campaign around big, soft focus themes, like common purpose and love.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "TOM JOYNER MORNING SHOW")

BOOKER: You can't drive out darkness with darkness. You've got to bring the light. You can't drive out hate with hate. You've got to bring the love. And I just think it's time for a more radical empathy for each other in this country.

DETROW: It's not that Booker has never gone after political opponents. He made headlines last year lambasting Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in a hearing following the Oval Office meeting where President Trump used a derogatory term to describe several majority-black countries.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOOKER: Your silence and your amnesia is complicity. I hurt. When Dick Durbin called me, I had tears of rage when I heard about his experience in that meeting. And for you not to feel that hurt and that pain.

DETROW: From his time as Newark mayor to his five years in the U.S. Senate, Booker has built his career on big, buzzy moments, often using social media to create them. In 2017, he livestreamed an hours-long sit-in in front of the Senate to protest the Republican push to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOOKER: And we're just going to sit down. And we're going to sit there for - I don't know how long, but we're going to sit there.

DETROW: It started with just Booker and Congressman John Lewis, recruited dozens of senators and even more supporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOOKER: I'm really psyched to see so many young people here. Where are you from?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The Chicagoland area.

BOOKER: You're from the Chicagoland area.

DETROW: Sometimes the moments have backfired, like when Booker made what looked like a bold gesture during Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation hearing, threatening to release confidential documents.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOOKER: And I understand that the penalty comes with potential ousting from the Senate.

DETROW: It later became clear the documents had already been approved for release. Meghan McCain referenced that scene during an interview on ABC's "The View" today.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE VIEW")

MEGHAN MCCAIN: How do you convince people, especially on the left, that you're authentic and that you're not a phony, especially during this time, and this isn't just, you know, sort of a political stunt, if you will?

BOOKER: Well, you can't speak to authenticity. No, you've just got to be who you are. And there are going to be critics all the time

DETROW: In the early hours of his presidential campaign, Booker has made it clear he won't change his approach. Asked whether his message of compassion and love will hold up to Trump's brutal Twitter attacks, Booker said...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOOKER: You know, love ain't easy.

DETROW: And he interrupted the press conference outside his Newark home to greet a neighbor in Spanish, emphasizing his ties to the city where he launched his political career.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

BOOKER: What is one of the greatest professions in our country, which is public school teachers. (Speaking Spanish). I'm sorry about that.

DETROW: Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.