Sen. Cory Booker argued Thursday that the best path to the presidency is the moral high ground, defending his candidacy from critics who say his appeal to voters’ better angels isn’t an effective strategy to unseat President Trump.

Booker, a Yale-educated lawyer and former Rhodes scholar, was mayor of Newark before becoming the first African American to represent New Jersey in the Senate, and he’s been mentioned for years as a potential presidential candidate. But he’s had difficulty separating himself from the crowded pack of 2020 Democratic contenders.

Booker, speaking to The Washington Post’s Robert Costa as part of a series of interviews of the presidential candidates, said it’s a mistake to respond to Trump’s angry, accusatory rhetoric with more of the same.

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“If you want a fight-fire-with-fire person . . . then people will choose somebody else,” Booker said. “But I believe this is an election that is really about the soul of our country.”

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The senator often speaks in lofty language of the importance of love and unity. His detractors worry that this is not sufficient to take on Trump, with his belligerent rhetoric, routine use of insults and often-emotional appeals to voters.

For now, it’s not clear that Booker’s less-than-vitriolic stance on Trump is resonating with Democrats who urgently want to defeat the president.

He said that his nonconfrontational stance also takes fortitude, and that it’s the right way to address the issues that are hurting and dividing the country, which he said go far deeper than Trump.

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“I am a warrior. And my heroes have always been warriors,” Booker said, listing civil rights leaders he admired. “They didn’t take [racists] down by bringing bigger fire hoses and stronger dogs.”

He added, “You may win a presidential election, but you lose a nation.”

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As Democrats head toward their second presidential primary debate at the end of the month, Booker is still struggling to connect with voters and campaign donors.

In the second quarter of the year, he raised $4.6 million, well behind several of his Democratic rivals. In the polls, Booker has consistently trailed former vice president Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Kamala D. Harris (Calif.).

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Despite his call for greater comity, last month Booker was part of the first big brawl among Democratic candidates after Biden made statements touting his civility in working with segregationist senators decades ago.

Booker became the first candidate to call out Biden and said the former vice president should apologize. Anyone that wants to lead America, Booker said, needs to understand the “hurt and pain” that words like that cause.

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“I’m not holding it against vice president Biden for saying something boneheaded — we all have,” Booker said. “But come forward. I’m happy that he came forward and apologized. But a presidential nominee shouldn’t need 18 days to see the need to apologize and shouldn’t need that lesson.”

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