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Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and I go way back. So far back that I knew him before he ran for mayor of Newark the first time in 2002. Back when his every utterance had people swooning that he could be president one day. Yet, now that he is actually running for president, Booker is way down in the national polls and in the polls in Iowa and South Carolina. When I asked him why that is, Booker used history to make the case that he shouldn’t be counted out.

“Nobody from the Democratic Party in our lifetime has ever gone from leading in the polls this far out to be president of the United States,” Booker told me in the latest episode of “Cape Up” recorded at a dining room table in the house he owns in Newark. “The people who do win are exactly like me. They’re behind in the polls. [Jimmy] Carter at 1 percent around this time. I think Bill Clinton was around 4 percent. Right now, Barack Obama was behind Hillary Clinton. ... They were all considered long shots.”

That’s not all they have in common. Booker then articulated the two things the winning nominees had in common. “One is they’ve been the more unifying candidates, a message about our commonalities, our common purpose. They actually talk about our higher values. Carter after Nixon was talking about a return to decency and to grace in our country. Obama about hope. The other thing they have is understanding what it took to win in Newark. It’s the ability to organize in those early primary states in ways that can win. I think it’s the reason why John Kerry, [who] was polling at 4 percent, low single digits, went on to win,” Booker said. “So, when you ask me about what the metrics I’m concerned about right now, they’re definitely not polling in South Carolina this far out, is much more about the organizing we’re doing in Iowa.”

“The candidate who can best call this country again to our common purpose and common cause is the one that’s gonna win,” Booker said in a refrain that reflects not only his philosophy of public service but also the rationale for his presidential run. “Everybody talks about beating Donald Trump. Pundits tell me that’s the No. 1 thing Democratic voters want. But you know what? I’d say this: Beating Donald Trump is the floor, it’s not the ceiling. It gets us out of a valley, it doesn’t get us to the mountaintop. We’re not gonna win this election, the Democrats, based upon what we’re against. We need to inspire this country about what we’re for, and that’s the kind of candidate I wanna be.”

I asked Booker about the African American vote and how he feels about the front-runners all being white and older than 70. This was the topic of a column he wrote last week for Essence magazine, which is geared toward black women. Booker believes high name ID is what is driving the top-tier status of former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in particular.

“Look, Bernie and Biden started out with a 100 percent name recognition in this election. My campaign manager, first-ever African American male campaign manager of a major campaign, said to me, ‘Amigo, only about 50 percent of black people even know who you are,’” Booker told me, laughing. “Everybody knows who Biden is. I have elder relatives of mine, black folks who are like, ‘I like Joe Biden. He was Barack Obama’s person.’ And so, that’s gonna be there for a while.”

Yes, we talked about his girlfriend, actress Rosario Dawson. She was actually upstairs the entire time and only came down after the interview was over. But we talked a lot more about policy. I got him going on health care and the $34 trillion Medicare-for-all plan proposed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass). “The goal of my life in health care is to get to a point where every American has health care, as a right,” Booker told me after noting that he signed onto Sanders’s health-care bill. “As long as I can, I’m gonna fight to advance the ball towards that direction.”

And then we talked about gun control. Gun violence is not an abstract issue for the former mayor. He had to deal with it — its consequences and aftermath — on a daily basis. “The No. 1 cause of death in this community I’m living in right now is murder,” Booker told me. I asked him about the death of Shahad Smith, a longtime neighbor who was killed a block away from where we were sitting. But it was Booker’s recounting of his relationship with a young man in the housing project where he once lived named Hassan Washington that led to the most searing moment in the hourlong interview. Washington was among a group of boys who hung out in the lobby of the apartment building and who, Booker told me, reminded him of his own late father. But Booker talked about his sense of guilt after Washington was murdered, and he broke down crying in the middle of it.

This is ... Haunts me still, now that more of Hassan’s crew have died, most of that crew is dead. These were good boys. They’re better than me. These were kids who deserved the best of America, and they’ve seen the worst of it. And so, for me, this is why I fight.

Listen to the podcast to hear him talk more about what he would do on gun control, his relationship with Dawson and how the possibility of an impeachment trial in the Senate would impact his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“I swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. Not only do it if there’s not an election going on. No matter what,” Booker said. “This is a moment where I’m gonna do my job and, however this plays out, I know that I’ve done my duty. Donald Trump has violated his duty. I’m gonna do mine.”

“Cape Up” is Jonathan’s weekly podcast talking to key figures behind the news and our culture. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and anywhere else you listen to podcasts.

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