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Cory Booker's big bet on Iowa

Cory Booker was one of the first 2020 presidential campaigns to build out a large operation on the ground in Iowa. After a long summer, with little movement in the polls, Booker's team made an urgent fundraising pitch for $1.7 million so he wouldn't have to drop out of the race. 

The pitch worked, and he reached his goal, keeping his campaign alive. At some point, his campaign will need to reach a higher threshold, which Booker recognizes. He is staking his campaign on Iowa, and he says there's just one way to define success in Iowa: winning. 

"I'm in it to finish first in the caucuses," Booker told CBS News in an interview in West Des Moines on Tuesday night. "That's what we're fighting for. And I believe we can. We have well over 100 days to do that."

He returned to Iowa this week for a four-day swing, his longest trip through the Hawkeye State since a May RV tour that was also four days.

But in between those May and October swings, Booker made just six trips to Iowa, where he spent nine days campaigning and attending events for members of the public or organizations or that were open to press, according to a CBS News analysis. During that same stretch, only former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, who entered the race in July, and Miramar, Florida Mayor Wayne Messam, who has been to Iowa once, spent fewer days publicly campaigning in Iowa.

Presidential Candidates Attend Polk County Democrats' Steak Fry In Des Moines
FILE: DES MOINES, IA - SEPTEMBER 21: Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) takes a selfie during the Democratic Polk County Steak Fry on September 21, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa.  Joshua Lott / Getty Images

Next week, the fourth Democratic presidential primary debate could prove to be an opportunity to attract more attention. Booker has been able to hit the Democratic National Committee's debate requirements, and he's one of eight candidates who has currently qualified for the November stage. But, he has struggled to break out of the low single digits in polls. A Des Moines Register/CNN Iowa poll released last month showed that the senator was the top choice for 3% of likely Democratic caucus goers. 

But the poll had good news for Booker, too — 42% of respondents said Booker is their first or second choice, or they are actively considering supporting him, the sixth highest aggregate total among presidential candidates. And at this point in the campaign, still a little less than four months out from the caucuses, only one fifth of likely Democratic caucus goers have already decided which candidate they will support, according to the poll. 

Booker described the fourth quarter of 2019 as "crunch time" and said "it must be a time of growth," but he indicated his campaign is sticking with the plan they've laid down.

"We don't need to change our campaign strategy," Booker said. "We've said from the very beginning, this was the state we were going to make the most investments in, hire up the most staff in, and have the most presence in."

Since May, Booker's team has had about 50 full time paid staffers on the ground in Iowa, and scooped up several people with deep Iowa ties early on, but several campaigns have since exceeded that number. Booker's Iowa state director Mike Frosolne said the campaign is in the hiring process to add more staff in the state, and it will be opening three new field offices in Waterloo, Cedar Rapids and Sioux City in the next few weeks. 

When Booker's campaign surpassed the fundraising goal of raising $1.7 million in ten days at the end of September, Frosolone said was a big moment for the campaign and lifted its spirits. Several of the staffers pledged to get tattoos if the campaign met the fundraising goal. 

"They rallied together and really took on this challenge, and I think we are a better team for having gone through this," Frosolone said.

While Booker may have spent less time in Iowa this summer than his competitors, he did make several trips to the state in early 2019, well before he announced his candidacy. During the midterm elections, he also campaigned for several local candidates and raised over $375,000 for Iowa Democrats, Frosolone said. Several key state legislators who endorsed Booker have hit the trail for him as surrogates.

"When they needed help, Cory was there and will continue to be there to help elect Democrats up and down the ballot," Frosolone said. "It has certainly helped us form relationships."

That also includes Democrats like Iowa State Auditor Rob Sand, who introduced Booker in Decorah on Sunday. Sand, a Decorah native and a rising star in the Democratic Party, is the only statewide elected Democrat who has not endorsed a 2020 candidate. He had not previously participated in an event with a presidential candidate.

"If you want to do more than just win, but if you want to heal, then this is someone who needs to be at the top of your list," Sand told the crowd, although he did not endorse Booker at the event. 

At a stop in Boone on Tuesday, one caucus goer asked about a moment when Booker's back was against the wall and the senator referenced the recent fundraising effort to avoid ending his candidacy. 

"When I said our back was against the wall, I don't want to be in this for a vanity play," Booker answered. "If we can't continue to grow with a pathway to win here in Iowa, we shouldn't be in the race."

Some voters who indicated they plan to caucus for Booker, like Katy Merrifield of Cedar Rapids, said they are a little worried about his standing in the race. But, she believes that could change if more people hear from him. 

"I mean, being realistic about things, that is a concern," Merrifield said, referring to Booker's polling numbers. "But if people come and listen in to the truth that Cory speaks, he's got as much chance as anybody."

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