Booker plays up Vegas connection in crucial Nevada caucus

Booker plays up Vegas connection in crucial Nevada caucus

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — As Democratic presidential hopefuls hit the ground to woo voters in the early voting state of Nevada, many are touting how closely their home states align with the fast-growing tourist mecca. Few, though, can say it's where they stop for mom's home cooking.

Cory Booker rose to national fame as a New Jersey mayor and senator, but his mom and other relatives have lived in Las Vegas for years. Now, he's working those local connections to set himself apart from the crowded pack in a state that could be decisive.

Nevada's presidential caucus is the third of the early nominating contests for Democrats and is considered the first test of a candidate's appeal before a diverse population and the first contest in the West. For those in the packed 2020 field who struggle to break through in Iowa and New Hampshire, it could be their last opportunity to rise.

On his recent swing through Las Vegas, Booker told voters over breakfast at a local Baptist church that he feels like "this is kind of a home for me because my mom lives here."

He later told a 73-year-old voter that she could reach out to his mom across town to hold him accountable as president — a joke he repeated to another group of voters.

"I'll give you my mom's address," Booker said. "If I misbehave, you can go talk to her."

He made note of his mom's home in Las Vegas as he campaigned 400 miles (644 kilometers) away in Reno and the town of Minden, and opened his first rally in the state this year with the same fact and a shout out to his Uncle Butch, who also lives in Las Vegas.

After attendees at the Las Vegas rally cheered for his mom, Booker told them it was wise move because "that might entitle you to come by her home here and get some of the best cornbread stuffing you have ever tasted."

It remains to be seen whether the New Jersey senator's local connections could give him an edge in Nevada, a state where most of the population was born somewhere else and out-of-town visitors to the glitzy casino attractions of Las Vegas are a welcome driver of the economy.

Republican Marco Rubio also tried to play up his local connections while running for president in 2016. Rubio in Nevada spoke about his childhood in Las Vegas, when his father worked at one of the city's casinos and was active in the local casino-workers' union. Despite highlighting his history in the city, the Florida senator's connection failed to stop Donald Trump from a runaway win of the Nevada GOP caucuses.

"While it makes for a nice talking point and Rubio certainly played it up last cycle, I do not think it moves the needle for most voters," David Damore, the chair of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said in an email. "Having a team that knows the state and can get a candidate in front of groups and interests with clout is much more important."

While Booker's Vegas connections isn't the overriding message of his campaign here, it is a frequent part of his pitch as he weaves through points about home and community. The senator has tried to draw similar links in Iowa, pointing out to those who vote first on the presidential nominee that his grandmother was born in Des Moines and he still has family in the state.

The New Jersey senator told The Associated Press in an interview that he doesn't consider himself a local in Las Vegas, but he's been coming to the city since he was a child and got to know it better as an adult when his grandparents moved to the city and then his parents, shortly before his father's death in 2013.

"In the same way that I feel connected to where family is, that's why I feel so connected here," Booker said. "It's because I associate it with my grandparents, both of whom passed away here; my father, who passed away here; and then the decades of coming here for the best cooking I know, which is home cooking."

Donna West, the chair of the Las Vegas-based Clark County Democratic Party, said she doesn't know if Las Vegas Democrats would consider Booker a local, but the senator knows the community well and it could translate into some extra support.

"I frequently hear of a Cory sighting at a barber shop or a restaurant or a church," West noted.

Alexis Merz, a Las Vegas native and the president of Las Vegas Urban League Young Professionals, said it's possible that people who run into Booker out in the community might take a closer look at his candidacy, but his Vegas ties didn't strike a chord with her.

Merz, whose organization helped arrange a campaign visit with Booker in April at a barbershop in west Las Vegas, said the senator's personality and values speak much louder than his local connection.

"If he had been raised here, like born and raised here, it might be different," Merz said. "It's still a cool connection but not enough to win Vegas or even the state of Nevada."

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