DES MOINES, Iowa — Cory Booker is a self-described “big, bald, black guy from Jersey,” a former tight end on the Stanford University football team, and the former mayor of the tough town of Newark, N.J., but he is running a presidential campaign centered around love, ideals and unity.

“We are not a nation of hate and discrimination. What has defined this country is our ability to respond with love,” he tells a crowd in Des Moines. “The policy issues are so urgent, but this election is really a referendum on spirit, not one guy in one office. This election is a referendum on who we are and who we must be to each other.”

 

Booker, a U.S. senator from New Jersey since 2013, has emphasized consistently since he entered the race in February his argument that making this candidacy about love and togetherness isn't a sign of weakness.

“I am not talking about sentimentality," he said. "Love is a struggle, love is sacrifice. There are those who want to demean and create a divide, but we in this moment must be the party of a revival of civic grace. We must be the party of courageous empathy.”

In Clive, Iowa, he says, “I use love purposefully and unabashedly. Love is not saccharine. Love is standing up for each other and fighting for each other.”

Booker says he meets a lot of Democrats obsessed with defeating the incumbent president in 2020.

“My response is always no, no, no, we’ve got to have bigger aspirations. Beating Donald Trump is the floor, not the ceiling. Beating Donald Trump doesn’t get us to the mountaintop," he said. "It is such a harder road to go to love, it is so much harder. But it is so much more rewarding and makes for a better society, it makes for a better culture.”

While Booker talks of love and unity, he maintains a continuously optimistic and even fun tone while campaigning, and his stump speeches can take on the aspect of performance art, with Booker acting out his experiences as a senator or in Iowa. He has, much to both the delight and chagrin of his audiences, a penchant for cringe-worthy jokes. Ironically, even though Booker is unmarried and has no children, he loves to tell what he calls “dad jokes.” (A visit with a cow farmer, he said, was “udderly amazing,” “very moooooving,” and he liked to “milk that joke for all it was worth.”)

His emotional speeches can bring audiences to their feet, chanting along with him “we will rise” when he shouts, as in Clive, “Like Kennedy who pointed to the moon, we will rise. Like King, who pointed to the mountaintop, we will rise. Iowa, America, it is our time to come together. Trump does not define us. We define our truth, and I’m telling you right now, we will rise!”

Booker argues that it is more his experience as mayor of Newark from 2006-13 than his time in the U.S. Senate that informs voters as to what he would be able to do as president.

“I know how to get big things done,” he says. “We turned our school system around. Now it’s the top school system in America for low income kids.” He said that to do those things he had to “create uncommon coalitions, which are the only thing that can create uncommon results.”

So what is the “mountaintop” and “uncommon results” that Booker wants, in terms of policy?

Health care: Booker believes health care is a right for everyone and he is for universal health care, but he emphasizes that he doesn’t want to rush headfirst into any single-payer system. “This is going to be a process,” he likes to say. His main points of emphasis are driving down the costs of prescription drugs. “I don’t need Congress to do that. I will take away patents from companies that are jacking up prices for profit.” He also wants to lower the age of Medicare eligibility.

Education: Booker touts his plan to increase school professionals — such as teachers, school nurses and counselors — using federal funds, as well as using federal tax credits to get rid of teachers’ student debt.

Housing: Booker has what he calls a “big, bold” plan where renters get a tax credit if they are paying more than a third of their income in rent. “If we have decided as a country that we’re going to subsidize people who are buying homes, then let’s help people who are struggling to pay their rent, as well.”

Booker seems most proud of what he calls his child poverty eradication plan, saying, “I’m going to transform the reality.” The plan calls for expansion of the child tax credit and the earned income tax credit, as well as paid family leave. And, uniquely, a plan that has been dubbed “Baby Bonds.” As Booker explains it, “Let’s have every child in America, no matter your background, get an interest-bearing account with $1,000 in it,” with more money added in ensuing years depending on the child’s wealth and the money available at age 18 for school, buying a home or workforce training. “It would close the wealth gap in our country dramatically and close the racial wealth gap almost completely. The implication for our society would be breathtaking.”

Booker, however, makes sure to add a note of pragmatism to his policy messages: “As Democrats we can’t let our progress be sacrificed on the altar of purity. We may not get everything we want, but sometimes that’s what makes things happen.”

While willing to be pragmatic, the 50-year-old senator wants Iowans to caucus for him on Feb. 3 because they believe he can do more than just win in November, but also believe that togetherness, and even love, can heal a divided nation.

“This election is going to be decided by who can best call us to our common aspirations, who can best inspire us to be the truth of who we are,” he said.