(CNN) - Sen. Cory Booker says he is nearing a decision on whether to run for president in 2020, but the New Jersey Democrat's schedule over the past weekend left little doubt as to what the decision will ultimately be.
Over the course of a four-day swing through the South, Booker set the stage for his all-but-inevitable campaign: checking in with influential African-American political leaders and bringing his call for a "revival of civic grace" to their communities.
The trip culminated in remarks at the King Day at the Dome rally in Columbia on Monday, where Booker greeted the crowd as his "brothers and sisters," saying, "we stand together, and we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors."
"We're gathered together because they gathered together in church basements, they gathered together in barn houses, they gathered together to march, to sit in, to fight," Booker said, adding, "We are gathered together because we believe in this democracy, and we know in this country that the power of the people is always greater than the people in power."
Within the past decade, the event on the steps of the South Carolina statehouse has become a signature stop on the Democratic presidential primary calendar. At this time in 2007, then-Delaware Sen. Joe Biden and then-Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd spoke from the same stage on the steps of the South Carolina statehouse.
This year, it could mark Booker's final major event before he decides, publicly and officially, whether to run for president. He's expected to jump into the race in the coming weeks, and his aides have already put in place a campaign framework for when that moment arrives.
Booker was also putting some final pieces in place during his swing across the South — starting in New Orleans on Friday, on to Georgia and then South Carolina. The ambitious itinerary, Rep. Jim Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat, laughed Monday, "says a lot about (Booker's) stamina."
It also speaks to where Booker will focus his energy in a crowded and competitive Democratic primary, recognizing that African-American voters are poised to play to play a powerful, if not decisive, role in choosing the party's nominee.
Leaders in that community have suggested they would be enthusiastic about a Booker presidential bid. During a rally for New Orleans schoolchildren Friday, Rep. Cedric Richmond, the most recent former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, led a chant of "run, Cory, run!" before Booker took the stage. It wasn't exactly an endorsement; Richmond said he hasn't decided yet whether he will back Booker or former Vice President Joe Biden.
"But I think (Booker) should run," Richmond told CNN. "I think he brings energy, I think he talks to a different generation. I think he brings excitement, I think he brings experience."
In Georgia, Booker met Saturday with his former law school classmate Stacey Abrams, whose underdog campaign for Georgia governor made her one of the standout Democratic candidates of the 2018 midterm election cycle — and a possible kingmaker in the next. A spokesperson for Booker confirmed the meeting but would not give further detail on what was discussed.
The following day, Booker joined Rep. John Lewis, an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, on a road trip to Plains, Georgia, to attend Sunday school led by former President Jimmy Carter. Afterward, Carter told Booker in an exchange captured on Instagram, "I hope you run for president."
"That blew me away," Booker reflected Monday, adding, "I'm not that far from making a decision myself."
Even as he has kept mum, Booker's visit to South Carolina on Monday, capping off his holiday weekend travel, spoke loudly about his intentions and the path to victory he envisions — one that runs straight through the Palmetto State.
In the 2016 Democratic primary in South Carolina, African-American voters comprised 61% of the electorate. "Anybody that comes to run in South Carolina is going to have to communicate with African-American voters," said state Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson.
Booker would seem uniquely equipped to connect with this constituency — not only as a black candidate himself, but as one for whom the Civil Rights Movement and black identity features prominently in his stump speech. He is the product, he likes to say, of a "conspiracy of love" during the Civil Rights Movement that helped his parents overcome prejudice and made his own path possible.
Don Fowler, a former Democratic National Committee chairman and longtime South Carolina operative who attended an event in Orangeburg, South Carolina, featuring Booker last year, said he has been "well-received" in the Palmetto State thus far and would likely start the race in top tier of candidates there.
"Given his natural talents and who he is, I'd think he has substantial potential here," said Fowler. "I'd put him somewhere close to the top, in the top three," along with Booker's colleague in the Senate, Kamala and Biden.
Harris, decided to announce her candidacy for president on Martin Luther King Jr. Day — laying down a marker for other candidates, such as Booker, who are also aggressively courting the African-American vote. Harris plans to visit South Carolina later this week.
Clyburn said Harris' announcement date was "a pretty good symbol, but everybody will wait to see exactly how the substance will square with the symbolism." Booker on Monday simply wished his "dear friend" well.
In 2008, Barack Obama demonstrated the power of the black vote in the primary process, with African American voters propelling him to a decisive victory in South Carolina. But the dynamic is more complicated this cycle, with what could be the most diverse field in history.
African-American voters "are looking for someone who understands their struggle, one," said Richmond, "and two, I think they're looking for someone who can win. There is a real fear of (President Donald) Trump winning a second term."
Booker often speaks about that struggle in those terms. "I am a physical manifestation of the struggle and of my ancestors," Booker told reporters Monday, as he reflected on King's legacy.
The electability question, meanwhile, is one of the key questions Booker will seek to answer over the coming months. The implicit contrast with Trump could not be starker. Booker said he looks to Lewis and Carter, "two moral giants in America," as models who "represent decency and really resonate to me what I want my message to be in leadership."
"I think we need leaders that understand that we have to enter this time in America to lead with love," Booker added.
Booker has been reluctant to take on Trump directly, however, as other candidates and would-be candidates have. Speaking from the same stage as Booker on Monday, just minutes later, Sen. Bernie Sanders bluntly characterized the president as "a racist." The crowd cheered.
But Booker deliberately didn't go there Monday and hasn't.
"We cannot let individuals we disagree with be the center of our purpose," he explained to reporters afterward. "The center of our purpose has to be the great ideals of this country that are just not real for more and more Americans. So, that's what my focus is."
To prepare for his next phase (leaving unsaid what that phase might be), Booker has been re-reading King's speeches, he told Lewis during their road trip Sunday, in a video posted to Booker's Instagram.
The theme of "love" features prominently in King's words, as it would in Booker's campaign. On Sunday, Booker laid out his case for this approach.
"Some people think it's a saccharine word, it's a weak word," Booker mused to Lewis during their drive, "but you've shown me, you've taught me through your life, that love is incredibly difficult and hard ... and yet it can overthrow nations, like we saw in India with Gandhi."
Lewis agreed. "I don't think there is a force in America or any society more powerful than love," he said. "Love can help redeem the soul of a nation. And love is not weak. Love is strong."
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