By all accounts, Cory Booker was smart, funny, passionate and engaging at Thursday’s Democratic debate.
The charismatic New Jersey senator effectively prodded front-runner Joe Biden on racial justice, said God bless in Hebrew and somehow turned his own baldness into a dig at President Trump’s foreign policy failings.
Booker even had the line of the night when when he was asked if more Americans should adopt his vegan diet.
"I want to say: ‘no.’ Actually, I want to translate that into Spanish: ‘no,’” Booker said, spurring laughter from the audience.
After such a tour de force, you might think analysts and pollsters would be touting Booker as the next big thing in the Democratic contest, which is moving into a critical stage where only a handful of top tier candidates will likely survive.
“He had a really good night. He was more relaxed and cool,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political analyst. “I laughed at his jokes.”
“Will it make a difference? I don’t think so,” Sabato added.
Most politicos shrugged off Booker’s performance, which built on strong showings in earlier debates.
They predicted it would do little to boost his standing in the middle of the pack, with poll numbers stuck in the mid-single digits.
“I’m skeptical that any one debate performance will change things,” said Nathan Gonzales of Inside Politics.
That’s because of the unusual dynamic of the Democratic race, which is being driven above all by voters’ desire to find a candidate that can beat President Trump, analysts say.
Nasty attacks like the jibes that Julian Castro fired at Biden over his age are more likely to backfire on the attacker than to win any real traction in the polls.
Even when voters see something they like in a candidate like Booker, they look at the latest polls and see a guy stuck below 5%. And that makes them focus attention on better performing candidates like Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren who they view as having a better chance at beating Trump.
Of course, Booker may have more modest goal of just staying within shouting distance of the front-runners, knowing that things may still change dramatically as the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses nears. He may also take heart from Warren’s slow march up the leader board.
“Booker performed well enough to jockey for the top tier,” Jennifer Victor, a George Mason University professor, told Politico.
One tactic that Booker has avoided so far is trying to attack the candidate closest to him in profile, which in this year’s race would be Sen. Kamala Harris, the only other African American in the race.
If either Booker or Harris were to drop out of the race, the one black candidate left standing would be in a much stronger position to challenge Biden’s so-far commanding lead among black voter — or benefit when or if he stumbles.
But the two senators are also close friends, making that a difficult route for either one to take, especially since they don’t have any sharp political differences.
There may be another explanation for the former Newark mayor’s feel-good persona. He could be grooming himself as a vice presidential candidate, perhaps on a potential ticket led by Warren.
“It might just be that he’s going for the veep spot,” Sabato said.