IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) -- On his first trip to Iowa as a presidential candidate, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker urged Democratic activists and black leaders on Friday to heed his call for social justice and apply it to the fight for universal health care coverage and a fair criminal justice system.
In a Mason City church basement, in a meeting with city leaders in racially diverse Waterloo, at a town hall-style meeting in Cedar Rapids and in a packed home in Iowa City, Booker continually likened domestic problems to the denial of civil rights.
"You cannot have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness if you don't have health care," the Democratic senator told an overwhelmingly white audience of about 100 who turned out despite sub-zero temperatures. "That's not justice."
Later, in a racially mixed crowd in Waterloo, Booker bemoaned a criminal justice system that disproportionately punishes racial minorities and "ultimately makes us a country that has a cancer on our soul."
Race is shaping up to be central to the Democratic presidential campaign. Democratic prospects have called President Donald Trump's portrayal of immigrants racist and condemned his reaction to a deadly 2017 demonstration in Virginia as being sympathetic toward white supremacists.
Booker, who is African-American, is starting his campaign for the Iowa caucuses by framing the election in terms of a movement, like those for civil and voting rights more than a half century ago.
"We are a nation in crisis that is ripping itself apart with leaders who are pitting us against each other because of our race or our political party," Booker boomed in Iowa City. "I believe we can light this world on fire again, and put the indivisible back in this nation again."
Jeannie Maybanks, who met Booker during an event in Cedar Rapids, called him "an inspirational figure."
"He's got so much enthusiasm," Maybanks added. "He says what he says with such conviction. It's infectious."
Booker voraciously signed autographs, shook hands and stood for selfies, taking the now-commonplace political glad-handing a step further. Booker repeatedly took the phones of people he met and recorded digital video messages of himself and Iowans, smiling and joking with them.
In Waterloo, Booker became the first presidential candidate this year to visit Black Hawk County, where the black population — at 9 percent — is more than twice that of Iowa overall.
Booker, a former mayor of Newark, held a public panel discussion in Waterloo focusing mainly on issues facing the black community.
Booker touted the passage of the a criminal justice reform bill in December as an act that benefits minority men, though University of Iowa law school student Daisy Cruz said the bill didn't go far enough.
"I thought he sounded defensive," Cruz said. "He told us what he did, but not what more he's willing to do."
Throughout his events, Booker sprinkled in references to civil rights figure John Lewis, a longtime Democratic congressman from Georgia.
In Mason City, Booker bemoaned the influence of corporate and lobbyist money in elections, and told the audience he would not accept such contributions.
However, Booker's candidacy is being encouraged by a super political action committee started by wealthy Democratic donor Steve Phillips, a friend and former classmate of Booker's at Stanford University.
Booker told reporters he was frustrated by super PACs generally, but he did not expressly call for Phillips to shut it down.
"I don't think super PACs should be in a campaign for anybody, including Donald Trump. So, I don't support the super PAC," he said. "I've said publicly time and time again, I don't think there should be super PACs in this race."
Phillips was undeterred.
"Cory Booker's candidacy is the best vehicle for inspiring the kinds of large voter turnout in communities of color that will be necessary for progressives to win up and down the ticket in 2020," he said in an emailed statement.
However, he added, the super PAC Dream United would likely support whomever the Democratic Party nominates.
"What we are doing goes beyond Booker. We are doing this for our country," he said.
Booker planned to continue campaigning Sunday with stops in Marshalltown and Des Moines.