Washington (CNN)You can’t watch 10 candidates for two hours. So here’s the ONE candidate you need to watch tonight: Cory Booker.
The senator from New Jersey comes into tonight’s debate with a bit of momentum — thanks to a high-profile fight with Joe Biden last week over comments the former vice president made that praised the “civility” of his working relationship with the late segregationist Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi.And because most of the front-running pack are in Thursday night’s debate, Booker will have a prime spot on the debate stage — near the center next to Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. That, plus his poll standing compared with the other eight candidates onstage, should allow Booker plenty of camera time and time to talk.Booker also knows that he badly needs a moment to spark a campaign that hasn’t lived up to expectations yet. As the New York Times wrote earlier this week of Booker:”There have been breakout sensations, profound disappointments and examples of gritty resilience in the Democratic primary, but no candidate to date has been as simply confounding as the New Jersey senator, who has been sized up as presidential timber since he entered politics two decades ago. And few other contenders are under as much pressure to distinguish themselves at this debate, and the one next month, as he is.”Read MoreThere’s a difference, of course, in knowing you need to create a moment in a debate and, well, actually creating a moment in a debate. And, to date, Booker hasn’t been able to do that; he even backed off over the weekend from his back and forth with Biden.
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Playing nice is overrated in politics. Voters always say they like candidates who have hopeful messages and don’t attack their opponents. But they actually vote for candidates who draw contrasts and aren’t afraid to mix it up.In a field of this size — 24 candidates — differentiation (unless your name is “Joe Biden”) is absolutely essential. And the way you differentiate yourself from the crowded pack is to make sure voters know a) what you believe and b) what your opponents believe. Booker has done the first part decently; he’s nowhere on the second.The Point: When you are where Booker is — running in the middle of the chase pack — you get only so many chances to make something happen to change your path in the race. Tonight is one of those chances for him. He needs to seize it.