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Summer is gone, but Durham is still a hot place to be for Democratic candidates.

Correction: the Cory Booker political soiree Friday was NOT on the 28th floor of Unscripted hotel. It was across the street in downtown Durham at One City Center... regrets the error.

Durham last weekend was, if not the center of the political universe, at least close to it.

On Friday night, Democratic presidential contender Cory Booker spoke and nibbled vegan vittles from an area restaurant while sharing his vision of an America with a President Booker.

Those vegan cookies really were da' bomb - as the young folks used to say 10 years ago - but whatever health benefit that could be derived from them was probably lost by the time I ate my 12th one.

On Sunday, Joe Biden, the person some polls suggest is the leading Democratic presidential contender, was in Durham sharing his vision of a Biden-led America.

The Biden who showed up at Hillside High School bore no resemblance to the one we often hear and read about, the one the news media seem to revel in lampooning for his occasional verbal gaffes. Instead of the doddering old man some were - okay, I was - expecting, there stood a vibrant, engaged, gaffe-less candidate laying out the differences between the current president and himself.

Considering the way some of the challengers, including Booker, have gone after Biden during the debates, the two dudes weren't about to get together after their appearances and hoist a few at any of Durham's craft breweries. Still, anyone who attended both campaign events had to be struck by the similarities of their messages.

"We are," Biden told the crowd of several hundred, "in a battle for the soul of America... It's not just policies and agendae that's at stake... The words of a president matter. They can send brave men and women to war. They can end wars, they can help us heal. But they can also unleash and awaken the worst impulses among a minority of Americans."

As evidence, he cited the president's much-condemned comments that "there were very fine people on both sides" of the Charlottesville, Va. confrontation between so-called alt-Right Proud Boys and counter protesters.

Sorry, Mr. President: there were not very fine people on both sides.

Sen. Booker, during a 20-minute speech and a 40-minute question-and-answer period, spoke sparingly of the president, although he did say "We can't beat Trump by being more 'Trumpy' than he is...

"I worry about the Democratic Party," he continued, "because we can't define ourselves by what we're against, but what we're for. Can't we have bigger aspirations than just beating Donald Trump?"

Speaking to about 50 people at a private gathering on the 28th floor of One City Center, Booker - noting the country's uneven progress in living out its ideals - said "If America hasn't broken your heart, you don't love her enough."

Booker, whose late father is from Hendersonville and graduated from N.C. Central University, told a quintessentially American story about how white residents in a New Jersey neighborhood banded to keep the Booker family from moving in.

In that same anecdote, he spoke of how other white residents there banded to ensure that the family was allowed to move in, and about the attorney named - I swear - Freeman, who represented the Bookers gratis.

It was that experience, he said, that led him - after graduating from Stanford and Yale Law School - to spurn high-paying corporate gigs to represent poor people in housing rights disputes.

In a televised Town Hall meeting several months ago, Booker said "The only way to beat hate is not to bring in more hate, but to bring in love and hope..."

Friday night, he said "This race isn't about right or left; it's about right or wrong."

A newspaper in his home state has ridiculed him for his "kumbaya rhetoric."

That shouldn't be surprising, because we also live in a time when people are derided for being "social justice warriors." Seriously: wanting to make a better world is viewed as suspect by some people.


After listening to both candidates' messages, you almost expected the pugnacious Biden - who has challenged the president to, in essence, "put 'em up" - to take the stage to the Theme from Rocky.

Booker, whose campaign theme song is Lovely Day by Bill Withers, eschews not just corporate PAC money and meat - he'd be the nation's first vegan president - but also the bare-knuckle campaigning style currently in vogue.

He talks about love so much, in fact, that you almost expect to see Earth Wind & Fire emerge from the wings and start singing "It's all about loooooooove, ooh baby." (Look it up: you won't be disappointed.)

Booker, trying to convince the true believers that there is a still path to the nomination for him, said that he and Elizabeth Warren have more endorsements from elected officials than any other candidate. Among the politicians and office-seekers at Friday's soiree were state Sen. Mike Woodard, Dist. 22, and Pierce Freelon, who is a candidate for District 20. One of his opponents for that seat, Natalie Murdock, was also there.

In addition to articulating a vision for the future, there is one other skill every aspiring politician must master, one both Booker and Biden excel at - taking selfies with supporters.

Woe to any candidate who hasn't mastered the art of smiling endlessly - and the I-Phone.




Meet Barry Saunders

For over 20 years, Barry was a columnist for The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC. He also wrote for other publications, such as the Atlanta Constitution and the Richmond County Daily Journal. Often described as powerfully honest and illustratively funny, Barry's writing is both loved and hated by readers- sometimes simultaneously.  


Want more? Get your own copy of one of Barry's published books featuring reader favorites (and not so favorites) from his years writing columns for The News & Observer. Titled "Do Unto Others...And then Run" and "...And The Horse You Rode In On Saunders!", they're full of guaranteed entertainment. 


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