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Booker scales back campaign in New Hampshire

“It’s increasingly obvious that candidates that frequent N.H. venues, living rooms and larger, are those that pull ahead in support here,” Democratic former state Senate President Sylvia Larsen said in an email. “If you’re a candidate that avoids this close-up scrutiny it will reflect in poll numbers. NH voters track and support those willing to participate in close conversation with us. Cory is an inspirational orator who, perhaps due to lack of specificity, has not resonated with our voters. While Booker’s departure from NH is understandable, his NH results will reflect this early departure.”

Booker hasn’t been to New Hampshire since before Thanksgiving. While he had three events scheduled for Friday, he missed them because he had the flu, according to his campaign.

The senator also recently downsized his New Hampshire operation, which included significantly reorganizing local staffing and closing an office in Portsmouth — one of the bluest parts of the state. They now have two campaign offices left, in Manchester and Nashua, the two largest cities. By comparison, top-tier campaigns have more than a dozen offices throughout the state.

Spending figures underscore the early state triage: His campaign has revealed plans to invest $500,000 into TV and digital advertising in Iowa, but nothing similar is planned for New Hampshire at the moment. The super PAC affiliated with Booker, United We Win, has only purchased TV ads so far in Iowa, where it recently spent about $200,000 in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.

Booker hasn’t written off New Hampshire entirely — he recently secured his field-high 117th endorsement Tuesday when 14 activists announced their support for him.

And some of the state’s top elected officials who have endorsed Booker question whether polling showing him at 1 percent in the first-in-the-nation primary state is accurate — echoing a point the candidate makes himself.

But with limited resources and the clock ticking toward the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses, he’s forced to rely on local surrogates to spread his message. In interviews with half a dozen state senators and representatives who are supporting Booker, the lawmakers insisted the lack of face time in New Hampshire won’t hurt his chances.

“I think that you’ll see us just go into overtime,” said state Sen. Jon Morgan. “We’ll be working overtime to amplify that message and make sure that voters hear about Cory.”

“We’re not Cory Booker but we’re also not mice on the streets,” said state Rep. Kathy Rogers, who spent Tuesday afternoon in a downtown coffee shop sitting across the table from a campaign staffer calling prospective voters. “If we go out and we are talking passionately about our candidate, that makes a difference.”

According to Booker’s campaign, its largest staff presence is in Iowa, where it has about 50 staffers, followed by New Hampshire.

“We’re spending a significant amount of our candidate’s time in Iowa and South Carolina, but we’re not by any means divesting from New Hampshire and Nevada,” a campaign aide said.

Booker’s Iowa and South Carolina orientation was evident from a Sunday meet-and-greet, and Monday ‘man-to-man’ conversation on issues that impact black men in South Carolina, before he filed for the state’s ballot. He released his plan to support and protect historically black colleges and universities — only four states have more HBCUs than South Carolina’s eight — the following day.

He began a four-day tour through Iowa last week, which commenced with a major speech in which he criticized a system that allowed California Sen. Kamala Harris to suspend her campaign without any votes being cast. The next day, his campaign began airing a 60-second ad on African-American radio stations in South Carolina.

Booker’s focus on South Carolina, where black voters make up roughly 60 percent of the Democratic electorate, is evidence that he understands where his “political bread” could be buttered, according to Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright.

“I do think that no matter what happens before South Carolina, the narrative and the story can be rewritten if you do well in South Carolina,” Seawright said. “My advice to the Booker campaign is to play a numbers game, and the numbers definitely could be on his side going forward with an all-out effort focused on South Carolina and competing for, to this point, second place to Vice President Biden.”

Booker recently unveiled his plan to invest in rural America before wrapping up his Iowa swing, the same day his campaign released a digital ad to run in Iowa and South Carolina as part of a six-figure buy.

Jeff Link, a longtime Iowa-based Democratic strategist, conceded that it’s probably wise for Booker to prioritize Iowa over New Hampshire.

“Iowa’s first, and he will have an extra week before Iowa and New Hampshire to barnstorm the state of New Hampshire after we get finished,” Link said. “So it probably is the right kind of order of priority.”

Booker has repeatedly boasted about his 117 New Hampshire endorsements on national television.

“That doesn’t come without candidate time,” a campaign aide said. “He has spent a lot of time on the phone to places like New Hampshire and Nevada when he can’t be there.”

While Booker is piling up the endorsements of local elected officials in New Hampshire, some who made his list are lesser-known figures — at least four are in high school. The campaign said some, but not all of them, are of voting age.

His New Hampshire supporters say they back the campaign’s decision to zero in on Iowa, which votes eight days earlier.

“Certainly he has spent more time in Iowa and I think that’s part of the strategy,” said state Sen. David Watters. “They realize they have to do well enough in Iowa to be viable a week later in New Hampshire.”

“What I would say to him is we will be ready to catch the wave when you come in here out of Iowa,” he said.

Booker failed to qualify for next week’s PBS NewsHour/POLITICO debate. He met the Democratic National Committee’s 200,000-donor threshold, but fell short of meeting the polling requirement. To qualify, Booker needed to hit at least 4 percent in four approved surveys. He never garnered 4 percent in any of the two-dozen-plus qualifying polls.

In an interview on CBS News’ live streaming platform CBSN on Tuesday, Booker argued that debates shouldn’t center around “imprecise polling.” He said his campaign leads the field in endorsements from local leaders in Iowa and New Hampshire, has one of the best organizing teams in Iowa and insisted he is seeing momentum on the ground in the first-in-the-nation caucus state with “record” and “overflowing” crowds during his last swing.

Booker also dismissed his low polling across the early states. He sits at 2 percent nationally and in South Carolina, between 1 and 3 percent in Iowa and 1 percent in New Hampshire, according to recent polling.

Rogers, the New Hampshire state legislator, warned not to count Booker out: “Don’t judge New Hampshire early. We’re an ornery state. We love to surprise people.”