“Um, that’s not it,” the man deadpanned.
“No,” Booker admitted, rubbing his not-quite-Rock-like bald head. “I’m a United States senator from New Jersey.”
“Congratulations,” said the man, who walked away with a wave before ever learning Booker’s name or that he was running for president.
The senator may have as good a chance landing a role in the next Fast and the Furious sequel as he does at becoming the leader of the free world. But Booker, along with 19 other Democratic candidates, came here to Detroit’s historic Fox Theatre to convince voters that they could handle the role. Or at least make themselves a bit more recognizable.
Which might explain the quips.
“The opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math,” Andrew Yang, a businessman who is offering to pay all Americans $1,000 a month if he’s elected president, said on the second night of the debate.
“The first thing I’m going to do when I’m president is Clorox the Oval Office,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.).
“There’s a saying in my community,” Booker told former vice president Joe Biden, attacking him on his criminal-justice record. “You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid, and you don’t even know the flavor.”
The flavor of the debates was blood, salt and Gatorade — or so it would seem from the coverage on CNN, the host of the debate, which toggled between boxing-style promos and the talking-head purgatory of the Super Bowl pregame shows. Story lines were duly flogged: Harris vs. Biden, Beto vs. Buttigieg, The Progressives vs. Everybody. A big red clock counted down the hours, minutes and seconds until the opening bell.
“I am super stoked for this event tonight!” enthused CNN host Brooke Baldwin from an outdoor set near the venue on Tuesday afternoon, with six hours before prime time. A few minutes later, she alerted viewers to a “fun moment” happening in the debate hall: Beto O’Rourke, the former U.S. congressman from Texas, was being shown his lectern. “Getting the lay of the land,” Baldwin said, “where to stand, positioning . . . .”
Here's where most of the Democratic field stood: nowhere. The vast majority of the two dozen major candidates have never cracked the single digits in any poll, and most of them are hovering around 0 percent. The fundraising and polling bars will be higher for the next round of debates, in September, and the Detroit doubleheader might indeed mark the end of the chaotic first chapter of the primary race, before the great winnowing occurs. Some candidates seemed in danger of disappearing if they did not manage to transform themselves into movie stars ("She's not been able to pop so far," said CNN host Michael Smerconish of Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.) Or . . . sports heroes? ("He needs to throw the long ball," Smerconish said of Steve Bullock, the governor of Montana.)
Indeed, the debate was playing at Detroit sports bars, with patrons shouting out at the TV as if they were watching a ballgame, or maybe an episode of “The Bachelorette.” “I don’t like a man who doesn’t smile, ever,” said a mechanic at Anchor Bar, a dive, of former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro on the second night of the debate.
“Bullock last night, now that’s a man,” said Rachel Sowers, a Quicken Loans mortgage broker also at Anchor Bar. “I was staring at the TV last night like, ‘I like every word you’re saying, and I like your face.’ ”
What about the contestants in the back half of the doubleheader? “All I know is that Joe Biden in his 20s was a snack,” Sowers said. “I would text 20-something Joe Biden at 1:20 a.m.”
O’Rourke had tossed a Frisbee as part of his debate prep, according to a “scoop” provided to reporters by a member of the candidate’s staff. Some of his opponents had been trying out other, not-at-all-desperate ways of being cool and charming. New York Mayor Bill De Blasio had joined Snapchat. (“Me balancing political priorities,” read the caption on a photo of the mayor balancing a pen on his nose.)
John Delaney, a businessman and former U.S. congressman from Maryland, sat at the kitchen table aboard his team bus and laid out his game plan: Go after someone more famous than himself. For Delaney, who had been in the race longer than anyone but whose poll numbers were only slightly better than yours or mine, the road to recognition went through Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.).
“You don’t want to become the party of Trump on the left,” he said, previewing what would be his line of attack on Sanders. “Some people are trying to do that, to propose outrageous things.”
Delaney would become part of a viral moment onstage: a crisp counterpunch by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.). “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States,” Warren told Delaney, “just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”
Pow! And the Twitter crowd goes wild! Still, Delaney’s team considered the night a success. Screen time is screen time.
Self-help guru Marianne Williamson did not come to fight; she came to speak in solemn tones about false gods, racial reconciliation and “the dark psychic force of collectivized hatred” she believed President Trump had unleashed in America.
The debate was a homecoming for Williamson, whose sermons used to air on Detroit’s local television back in the 2000s, when she served as pastor of a nondenominational megachurch here. “She’s a ridiculously loving person,” said Peggy Rivage, a professor of women’s studies at Berea College, who attended a Williamson watch party next door to the venue with her theologian husband. “Imagine a president of the United States who can see the deep goodness inside of everyone and refuses to go anywhere else.”
Williamson won the titles of most tweeted-about and the most-Googled candidate of the night. In a speech to her supporters afterward, she asked them to “be convicted around our love,” and “drown out [dog whistles] with angel voices” in the form of 40,000 $1 donations she needs to make the next debate stage. “We need money,” she said, “and we need buzz.”
Bullock needed buzz, too, but instead he got pizza. The Montana governor’s most memorable moment onstage might have been when he got turned around talking about America’s nuclear arsenal. (“We need to get back to nuclear proliferation,” he’d said before stammering to correct himself: “De-proliferation — reducing it!”)
In the early hours of Wednesday morning Bullock’s confidence appeared de-proliferated as he sat in the Brass Rail Pizza Bar with his 12-year old son, a pollster and two armed state troopers, asking fellow patrons to grade his performance. The governor had not thrown the long ball, per the wisdom of the CNN pundits. “I should have done more to get myself into the second half of the debate,” he said.
Tired-but-wired campaign aides shuffled into the bar for a nightcap. A group of Warren staffers danced to Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” Some Delaney staffers sang along to Garth Brooks’s “Friends in Low Places.” When the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” started playing, nobody sang.
Eventually the bar staff played “Closing Time” three times as an unsubtle message to everyone lingering. CNN’s countdown clock had reset: 18 hours until the next debate.
The candidates were not the only ones trying to make a scene. Downtown, antiabortion activists drenched in red ink shouted into a megaphone while a rock band of teenagers in sunglasses sang a song about how "CNN Sucks." A "Build the Wall" parade float cruised through the streets blasting "American Pie" and Aretha Franklin's "Think" over the din of Green New Deal protesters. A woman named Carol Dunitz wore an Uncle Sam outfit and carried a sign advertising a musical she had written called "2020: The Musical." (sample lyric from the ditty "Dump the Trump in 2020": "A TV star seems sexy, but now we're just perplexy") A 75-year-old retired Chrysler worker and ex-Marine named Earl Grobbel held a sign for Biden while wearing an Elvis costume. "I figured people might pay attention," he explained.
Some of those street theatrics spilled into the Fox Theatre. Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour, leaders of the Women’s March, were escorted out after shouting out “Fire Pantaleo!” during Mayor de Blasio’s opening remarks. (Danny Pantaleo is the NYPD officer who put Eric Garner in a deadly chokehold. He is still on the department’s payroll.)
Journalists, meanwhile, were escorted down the street to a tent filled with billowing cold air, a dozen flat-screen televisions and a little patch of red carpet known as “spin alley.” That is where candidates and their surrogates made the political equivalent of a red-carpet walk, trying to convince reporters that they had been the breakout stars of the show.
Had it been Tulsi Gabbard? The congresswoman from Hawaii had pulled a Kamala Harris on Kamala Harris, delivering a cutting prosecution of the senator’s criminal-justice record. Had it been Andrew Yang? In his closing statement, the political outsider had thrown a long ball right through the camera lens. “We’re up here with makeup on our faces and our rehearsed attack lines, playing roles in this reality-TV show,” Yang said. “It’s one reason why we elected a reality-TV star as our president.” (The fourth wall: Break only in case of emergency.)
Or had it been Senator Not Dwayne Johnson from New Jersey? When Booker made his red-carpet walk after the second night of the debate, everyone wanted a piece of him. He had performed well, questioning front-runner Joe Biden on the former vice president’s criminal-justice record. Biden, having a “de-proliferation” moment of his own, had accidentally called Booker “the president” — and then, attempting a save, “the future president.” (Um, that’s not it.)
A throng of cameras, boom mics and jostled journalists followed Booker as he made his way through a carousel of television hits.
“Do you have anything to say to your British fans?” a British reporter shouted.
“I have to do what my people tell me to do,” Booker said, as his staff ushered him from a CNN panel to an MSNBC interview and finally pointing him at a CBS camera.
“He did what he came here to do,” Booker’s campaign manager, Addisu Demissie, told a reporter.
“Cory Booker turned in a performance,” said CNN commentator Van Jones, an old friend of Booker’s from law school, “that reminded you why he’s a household name.”