In this edition: Cory Booker debuts on the trail, Ralph Northam stays alive, and Larry Lessig tries to save the primaries.

I think it was smart of Amy Klobuchar to launch her campaign on the ice planet Hoth, and this is The Trailer.

MASON CITY, Iowa — Steven Howell, 64, was halfway through asking Cory Booker about the state of family farms when he added that his wife sent her regards.

“Keep talking,” said Booker. “I'm just going to steal your phone.”

As Howell talked about “takeover of family farms by industrial ag monopolies,” Booker grabbed the phone. “Hi, Kristi, this is Cory Booker,” he said. Oh, and as Howell knew already, Booker was pushing farm legislation through the Senate because even a “New Jersey boy” cared about Iowa farmers.

“This dangerous illusion of separateness in our country is going to hurt us,” Booker said. “It's a cancer.”

Booker, who has been seen as a potential presidential candidate for most of his 22-year career, made his campaign trail debut in a state where Democrats are still proud of launching Barack Obama to the presidency.

The senator from New Jersey, just eight years younger than the former president, is already separating himself from the populist candidates who frame the election as a way to dismantle the power of the very rich. His operating theory is that swing voters, stressed out every day by the behavior of the Trump administration, will want a healer to replace him. That's unique in the “first tier” of candidates; here's what it looks like.

He's putting his biography front and center. The last Democratic president won Iowa every time he was on the ballot said that his own family's story was the story of America. Booker's pitch begins with the story of his African American ancestors and how, from setback to setback, they raised a senator. (Booker endorsed Barack Obama's 2008 campaign just a few months after it began, when the senator from Illinois was a big underdog.)

“My grandmother's husband was a coal miner in Alabama. He got killed. As a single mom, she moved our family to Buxton, Iowa,” Booker said at one of his first stops here. “Buxton is sort of the story of Iowa; when it came to gender equality, when it came to race equality, Iowa was ahead of the country.” 

At every stop, Booker leavened his family's civil rights history with a joke, describing how a racist landlord sicced a dog on his father for trying to integrate a white neighborhood. “Every time he told the story, the dog got bigger,” Booker said in Des Moines. “I'd be eating my Cheerios, and my dad would say, 'Boy, I fought a pack of wolves to get you in this house!' "

The way he tells that story, a terrifying scenario quickly becomes a joke about what happens when you overcome adversity. His stories about Newark often take the same path: tough situations turning into lessons about why America needs free education “from the womb” to community college.

He sees bipartisan victories just around the corner. Booker doesn't have many stories to tell about winning over Republican voters; most of his election wins were in deep blue Newark and the rest were in reliably blue statewide New Jersey. Rather than talking electability, he talks about how uninterested most voters are in partisanship and how he should know, after running a city.

“Some people are going to tell you we need to fight fire with fire,” he said in Marshalltown. “Well, I ran a fire department. I can tell you, that doesn't work.”

Booker's been in the Senate for a bit more than five years; in Iowa, the main accomplishment he discussed from this period was the passage of the First Step Act, a criminal justice restructuring bill endorsed by the Trump administration. He recalls "some guy named Chuck Grassley” (the senator from Iowa who has never been well liked among Democrats in this state and is less liked than ever since the 2018 fight over Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination) trying to smother the bill. “I didn’t stand there and answer his speeches with my angry speeches,” Booker recalled in Marshalltown. “I went to his office, sat down there, and talked to him.”

He's not taking fire from the left — not yet. If you spend some time on Twitter — please, consult a family doctor before you do so — you'll find that Booker takes more fire from his party's left than any current candidate for president. The litany is long, from his campaigning for charter schools in Newark to his mayoral-era political alliances with Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and Ivanka Trump, to his vote against a pharma amendment championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Over six stops, not a single voter asked Booker about any of this — not even the charter schools. Booker shaped some of this with events that frequently gave the first questions to legislators he'd campaigned for in 2018, but in the absence of political attacks, voters simply didn't sound as if they were aware of Booker's "heresies." He described his support for Medicare-for-all by saying there were many potential paths to universal coverage, an idea is anathema to the left but didn't get any pushback in the room.

Booker's critics doubt he's a progressive, but he's happy using the term.

“Don’t let anybody tell you that progressives are not the most fiscally responsible people on the political spectrum,” Booker said at several stops. “Why do I say that with confidence? The morally right thing to do is also the fiscally responsible thing to do.” 

He may be on to something about the Democratic base. A recurring theme in conversations with voters at Booker's events was nervousness — a real dread about picking the wrong candidate, one who couldn't defeat the president. Annelie Heinen, a 35-year-old teacher who attended Booker's Waterloo roundtable, showed up wearing a “She Persisted” T-shirt, a reference to Booker's Senate colleague and presidential competitor Elizabeth Warren. But she said she was nervous about Warren's ability to win.

“I’m a big fan of hers, but women, especially older women, get pegged as being divisive,” she said. “Warren is incredibly intelligent, she’s a fabulous writer, and unfortunately there's this huge segment of the population that doesn't know that and will vote based on persona.”

A number of voters said that they were inspired by the more fiery rhetoric from other Democrats, but thought a more unifying, inspiring candidate could take a clear run at Trump.

“I have a problem with some of the far-left people,” said Midge Gaylor, a 79-year-old retired teacher who came to see Booker in Mason City. “I'm enthralled with the young woman from New York” — she clarified that she meant Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — “but she comes out so far left that she digs in the heels of the right.”

Booker's team is not naive about his vulnerabilities. The senator frequently describes constituents he helped, or lessons he learned from civil rights heroes. In the past, he's been accused of making these stories up. But every anecdote is backed up by some preemptive research. That's ready to be deployed, but in Iowa, voters didn't give Booker a reason to do so.

POLL WATCH

Should Virginia Governor Ralph Northam resign? (Washington Post/Schar School, 706 Virginia residents)

Yes — 47%
No — 47%

The smart take on Ralph Northam's blackface controversy when it broke, last Friday, was that he would resign within 24 hours. Not for the first time, the smart take was wrong, and Virginia voters are torn down the middle over whether the governor, elected with 53.9 percent of the vote, should remain in office. The crosstabs suggest that Northam could have dug himself out by now had he not held a stumbling, confusing news conference; 71 percent of voters say he has handled the controversy poorly, but 53 percent accept his apology. Contrast that with the fallout for Attorney General Mark Herring, who admitted to black caucus members that he, too, had once worn blackface at a party — just 34 percent of Virginians want him to a resign, and even a majority of Republicans want him to stay.

ON THE TRAIL

The days before Sen. Amy Klobuchar announced her presidential campaign were rough, with HuffPost and BuzzFeed publishing story after story about the Minnesotan's legendarily tough treatment of her staff. On Sunday, Klobuchar got a respite: a campaign launch in the freezing snow of Minneapolis. The Post's Chelsea Janes was there, as the questions to Klobuchar turned from her staff to, well, how cold it was.

“What makes me unique is I did this announcement speech in the middle of a blizzard, and I think we need people with grit,” Klobuchar said. “I have that grit. It’s really important we hear from people from all parts of the country and we need someone in the White House that has peoples' back. I’m going to start here, right on the Mississippi River, reach out to the heartland, and then to the rest of the country.”

Asked whether she was tough enough to take on the president, the campaign launch gave her an answer: “I am tough enough to take on Donald Trump because I’d have liked to see him sitting out here in the snow for an hour giving this speech.”

Klobuchar, by every measure the most moderate of the five senators seeking the Democratic nomination, will head to Iowa next week. The forecast for much of that week: snow.

DEMS IN DISARRAY

When FAQs go wrong: On Thursday, the “Green New Deal” stopped being a catchall term for environmentally friendly infrastructure and started existing as a resolution in Congress. That's how the problem started.

If you're one of the five Democratic presidential candidates who endorsed the Green New Deal this week, there's nothing tricky. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) have introduced a 14-page resolution for a “Green New Deal.” That's what you've co-sponsored.

If you're a Republican watching this unfold, you saw the GND's true intent in a FAQ published, then unpublished, by Ocasio-Cortez's office Thursday. That FAQ included a jokey line about how activists would not be able to get rid of “farting cows” in 10 years, as well as a reference to how those “unwilling to work” would get an income if the GDN became real. You see in those lines something draconian and confusing.

Since Thursday, Ocasio-Cortez's allies have been struggling to explain what they meant. It's simpler than it sounds. According to Democrats with knowledge of what happened, Markey helped craft an ambitious Green New Deal that was light on uncomfortable details. But the demand for a Green New Deal came first from environmental activists, who wanted more. The FAQ, which was distributed to the media Wednesday night, was a quick attempt to answer the concerns of those activists, but some terms that should have been removed were left in.

But regardless of the explanation, Republicans are already making use of the botched FAQ. In a media blast attacking Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who has not even endorsed the resolution, the RNC said that “Midwest dairy farmers won't love the 'war on cows' in the Green New Deal, a plan she endorsed.” Like many Democrats, Klobuchar has supported only the concept of a massive infrastructure program designed to make America greener.

So far, most coverage of the Green New Deal has focused on the concept, and not the FAQ. In a CNN interview Sunday, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg said that the Green New Deal was a “framework” for what it made sense to do anyway.

“Even right now, one of the biggest recent announcements in our county of added union jobs in the auto industry was at a facility making electric vehicles,” Buttigieg said. “I think a Green New Deal would promote that. And so that could be good news for us here in the industrial Midwest.”

After one stop in Iowa, asked what he might say to a farmer who was seeing reports that the resolution would stop him from raising cows or using gasoline, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said the “narrative” was not worth getting tangled up in. 

“I’ve endorsed the framework and the resolution, but I don’t endorse doing things that are going to hurt the independent family farmer,” Booker said. “If anything, I want to let people know that we can have a green future that no way is contrary to a strong economy, but actually creates a stronger economy. Those aren’t just words; we did it when I was mayor of the city of Newark, by just retrofitting our buildings. We drove down our carbon footprint; we drove down our city’s energy costs. We created jobs for our residents, and we dealt with the issues of climate change.”

WHAT I'M WATCHING

Will ranked-choice voting take over the primaries? On Saturday, Iowa's central Democratic committee met to discuss ways that voters who cannot physically appear at the state's 2020 caucuses might be able to participate — perhaps with ballots that allow them to rank a few of their candidates. The week before that, an election panel in New Hampshire's General Court met to hear testimony on whether ranked-choice voting could be implemented in time for the 2020 primary, one year away.

It's a wonky little idea that would revolutionize the way that parties pick their presidential nominees. Ranked-choice voting, or RCV, is simple: Voters get ballots that allow them to pick their favorite candidate, second-favorite candidate, and so on. If no one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the second-choice ballots get counted, then the third-choice, and so on, until someone gets a clear majority.

Last year, RCV survived its first test in a congressional race, with Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) defeating a Republican incumbent thanks, in part, to the second-preference votes of third-party voters. Larry Lessig, the Harvard academic and political change activist who briefly ran for president in 2015, testified in New Hampshire in favor of the proposal.

“The idea is to take the primary and make it a trial run for ranked choice,” Lessig said in an interview. “We’re launching town halls across New Hampshire and bringing people into this aspect of democracy reform. The focus will be getting the New Hampshire legislature to bring this up for a vote.”

Some cities and countries such as Australia had implemented versions of RCV. Lessig's view was that the “bottom-up” campaign for the system was working too slowly; a high-profile race that implemented the system would introduce the entire country and make converts fast.

In some ways, a presidential primary is a flawed test for RCV. Democrats assign delegates proportionately — there are no “winner- take-all” contests unless one candidate is able to win more than 85 percent of the vote. (That happened only once in 2016, when Bernie Sanders blew out Hillary Clinton in Vermont.) The yearning to declare a winner on election night, Lessig said, would probably mean that networks declare a first-round “winner” before the RCV process was complete. But to leave the current “first-past-the-post system in place,” he said, was clearly problematic.

“This president didn’t even get a plurality of the vote; he doesn’t represent a majority of the electorate,” Lessig said. “Systems that allow leadership to speak for a majority are very important for a democracy. If we do it here in New Hampshire, in a high-profile way, we will have a strong argument for pushing it in the general election — especially given the Starbucks candidate.”

The “Starbucks guy” is Howard Schultz, who Republicans believe is likelier to cost Democrats some votes if he proceeds with an independent presidential campaign. That, and the fact that Golden's opponent blamed RCV for his loss in Maine, color Republican opinions of this idea.

The New Hampshire House Election Law Committee vote on RCV is coming up on Wednesday.

2020

Kirsten Gillibrand. She's spending three days in South Carolina, stopping at farmers markets and churches, as well as a reception for upstate Democrats. The trip produced Gillibrand's first silly but unfortunate viral moment: an exchange in which she asked whether she should eat fried chicken with a fork. 

Cory Booker. He headed from Iowa to South Carolina for a packed Sunday and Monday of events.

Sherrod Brown. He ribbed Booker for talking about the “dignity of work” in Iowa; that's the phrase Brown has practically adopted for his own, from his 2018 reelection to his exploratory trips.

Kamala Harris. She's heading to New Hampshire for the first time in late February.

John Delaney. He's in New Hampshire on Tuesday and Wednesday, opening more campaign offices.

Pete Buttigieg. He was in Iowa for most of Friday and Saturday, attending talks and house parties that pulled in several hundred voters.

Michael Bennet. The senator from Colorado hinted that he, too, might run for president, telling NBC's Chuck Todd that the Democratic race might benefit from “one more voice.” 

John Hickenlooper. The former Colorado governor, who is much further ahead than Bennet in his 2020 exploration, will head to New Hampshire for meetings and events Wednesday and Thursday.

Tulsi Gabbard. She's spending Sunday and Monday in snowy Iowa, including two stops in cities where more left-leaning candidates tend to thrive, Iowa City and Fairfield.

Tim Ryan. He told BuzzFeed's Henry Gomez that he's heading back to Iowa after a friendly invitation, and not yet ruling out 2020. Pete D'Alessandro, who ran the 2016 operation for Bernie Sanders in the state, no longer works with Ryan but confirms that he is still looking at a run.

READING LIST

"This petty poster war says everything you need to know about the immigration debate in Congress,” by Michael Brice-Saddler

We are five days away from another potential government shutdown, and a Republican congressman is trolling a Democratic congressman by putting a poster of “Americans killed by illegal aliens” across from a poster of DACA recipients.

“Chris Christie's agonizing new memoir,” by Matt Taibbi

The former New Jersey governor's life as a farce. There are some cry-so-you-don't-laugh moments in this review.

“Harry Reid Rebuked Amy Klobuchar For Mistreatment Of Staff,” by Molly Redden and Amanda Terkel

Perhaps the most painful in the series of stories about Klobuchar's staff turnover that ran this week. 

“Six days when 2020 Democratic hopefuls scored with small donors,” by Shane Goldmacher

Fascinating data on the cash surges for each major Democratic candidate, and what caused them. Kirsten Gillibrand's best fundraising day came after the president said that she practically “begged” him for money, in a way that many people saw as sexist.

Leftists vs. liberals, with Elizabeth Bruenig, from the Ezra Klein Show

A wonked-out discussion between two thinkers on the left, the sort of thing worth listening to as “socialism,” however defined, grows more popular with Democrats.

COUNTDOWN

... one day until Beto O'Rourke cross-programs the president's El Paso rally
... three days until the DNC meets in Washington and picks its 2020 convention city