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The ghost of Al Franken and the mystery of the Gillibrand campaign’s failure to launch

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HANOVER, N.H. — Meg and Tavis Doucette couldn’t recall what happened to Al Franken.

“I have it somewhere in my memory. I sort of recall that,” Meg said, as she waited in a college bar on a Friday night in June to hear Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — whom many Democrats have held responsible for Franken’s political exit.

“Yeah, that’s not even on my radar. I didn’t even really know to be honest,” her son, Tavis, added. “Now I feel bad. I have to go research that.”

Franken, the former senator from Minnesota, may not be on the Doucettes’ minds as they weigh 2020 Democratic candidates. But some high-powered donors and party heavyweights, whose opinion tends to play an outsize role at this stage of the primary, have not moved past Franken’s 2017 resignation. Gillibrand herself, at times, has seemingly been at pains to do so.

After Gillibrand became the first senator to publicly call for Franken to step down, setting off a wave of over two dozen other Democratic senators to also call for his resignation, many elite donors who had once supported her hesitated. Some said they viewed Gillibrand’s actions as opportunistic and self-serving, especially as the presidential election neared.

For months, the common explanation about why the high-profile senator from New York long seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party has failed to break through in the presidential primary has centered around this dynamic.

Many political insiders have viewed Gillibrand’s low fundraising and polling numbers — she hovers at a half percent in polling averages — as evidence of a backlash. Democratic voters and donors, the thinking goes, were upset after Gillibrand became the first senator to publicly pressure Franken to resign after multiple women accused him of inappropriate behavior.

Gillibrand’s campaign itself pointed to Franken to explain why she was raising significantly less as a presidential candidate than she did in her Senate re-election race last year. In a memo obtained by The New York Times, her campaign reportedly said that there was “no question” that Gillibrand’s first-quarter fundraising was negatively affect by those “who continue to punish Kirsten for standing up for her values and for women.”

Still, in conversations with voters in early primary states, many say they aren’t thinking of Franken when it comes to making a decision on who to support in the primary.

“What was interesting about Gillibrand is she immediately wanted to talk about Al Franken and how she responded to that. For me, as much as that is important, it wasn’t what I was super interested in hearing about,” said Emily Van Kirk of Iowa, recalling an event featuring Gillibrand she attended at the beginning of the year.

“I am a long way away from picking my candidate, and I will certainly be considering a handful of them, including Gillibrand. That’s why I’m here — so I can get more than just the soundbite,” George Sykes, a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, said at a coffee shop meet-and-greet with Gillibrand earlier this month, adding that he doesn’t have an opinion about the Franken resignation. “I didn’t particularly pay attention to it.”

Gillibrand says she has backed away from her initial strategy of explaining her thought process on Franken, recognizing that most voters aren’t interested in hearing about him. His name hardly comes up anymore, she said recently.

“No, not really, to be honest,” Gillibrand said in a phone interview with NBC News just ahead of the first Democratic debate last week, when asked if she hears from voters about Franken. “It seems to be something that some elite Democrats, elite Democratic donors, care about. But no, when I am on the campaign trail people ask me about how to get access to health care, they ask me about how they can get better public schools or free college, or how we can get better job training.”

While Franken could help make sense of Gillibrand’s low fundraising numbers from big-dollar donors who once supported her, it still does not fully capture why she has failed to garner more grassroots support and continues to lag behind candidates such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has sworn off big donors all together.

The diagnosis for Gillibrand’s campaign headaches is more than just an Al Franken hangover. But many Democratic strategists and party leaders say they’re left puzzled.

“I just really don’t know. I am kind of at a loss for words right now,” said Adrienne Elrod, a Democratic strategist, as she grappled to explain Gillibrand’s struggling candidacy. “I think her campaign is a little confused, too.”

Some party leaders say Gillibrand’s problems started back home in New York. As other Democratic presidential candidates locked down home state support, Gillibrand struggled to get endorsements from the New York delegation. Some even publicly questioned the viability of her candidacy.

“I think that there was some lack of institutional support early on that contributed to a narrative that her run might be more quixotic than others,” said Basil Smikle, a Democratic strategist and the former executive director of the New York Democratic Party, adding that this dynamic “contributed to a low enthusiasm with her at the start.”

Others say that Gillibrand’s decision to brand herself as the feminist candidate in the race has fallen flat, especially in a Democratic primary where voters expect all candidates to speak to issues such as women’s reproductive health care and paid family leave.

“She had a very mom-centric launch, which isn’t as effective when you are in a race against other moms that are talking about more than just that,” Rebecca Katz, a New York-based Democratic strategist, said in a phone interview with NBC News.

On the campaign trail, voters echo this sentiment.

“Women’s issues are very important to me,” said Cass Olsen, a New Hampshire retiree, after attending a meet-and-greet with Gillibrand. “But they can be — and they are being — addressed by men and other women as well. So I don’t know how it plays out with her. I am still unsure.”

And Gillibrand’s stump speech, which is centered around the importance of female representation in politics, has left some progressives with a sour taste in their mouths. Gillibrand, they say, has not always practiced what she preaches.

“She has really advanced the feminist causes throughout the country … but it’s troubling to see that she hasn’t gotten off the sidelines more for women in New York,” said Katz, who worked for Cynthia Nixon during her gubernatorial primary run against Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2018, pointing out that Gillibrand endorsed both Cuomo and then-Rep. Joe Crowley over their female Democratic challengers last year.

Her campaign pushes back on that idea, saying that donations surged in the weeks immediately following the release of her Reproductive Rights Agenda, and continued to surge after she called on Fox News for lying about abortion during a town hall, arguing that it helped her reach the required level of donors to make the debate stage.

Many voters and party leaders say that what’s holding Gillibrand back is lack of exposure. She’s had good moments — from launching her campaign outside of Trump Tower to being one of the first candidates to visit Georgia in the wake of the state’s near-total abortion ban — but none have managed to stick with the public, the way Kamala Harris grabbed the spotlight when she shared the stage with Gillibrand at last week’s Democratic debate.

“I don’t know how people get the name recognition,” said Karen Zurheide, 63, at a women’s health care roundtable with Gillibrand. “A lot of people have gotten a breakout moment and she just has not had that.”

Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, sounded a similar note.

“It’s a really big field and so there are a lot of people not making a dent in the polls,” he said. “It can feel like a vicious cycle: You’re not covered so you don’t move up in the polls, and you don’t move up in the polls so you aren’t covered.”

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Trump administration and El Salvador reach agreement on asylum seekers

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The Trump administration has reached an agreement with the government of El Salvador that requires asylum seekers heading to the U.S. through El Salvador also apply for asylum there. NBC’s Julia Ainsley has details on the new arrangement between the countries.

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May not be in race ‘much longer’ if he can’t raise millions in days

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WASHINGTON — Sen. Cory Booker must raise nearly $2 million in the next 10 days or the presidential candidate has no “legitimate long-term path forward,” according to a memo to staff from the campaign manager obtained by NBC News.

The struggling candidate’s campaign manager, Addisu Demissie, warned that after weaker-than-expected fundraising in the early part of September, the campaign needs to rake in another $1.7 million before the end of the financial quarter on Sept. 30.

“Without a fundraising surge to close out this quarter, we do not see a legitimate long-term path forward,” Demissie wrote in the Saturday memo to staff and supporters. “The next 10 days will determine whether Cory Booker can stay in this race.”

Booker was one of the first candidates to build a substantial operation in critical early states, and his ground game in Iowa has been praised by local activists, but the large headcount is expensive.

Demissie said the campaign has enough money to keep going at its current pace if it wanted to, but not enough to expand operations before voting starts early next year and that Booker doesn’t want stay in the race if he doesn’t think he can win.

“If our campaign is not in a financial position to grow, he’s not going to continue to consume resources and attention that can be used to focus on beating Donald Trump, which needs to be everyone’s first priority,” Demissie wrote.

Booker’s campaign has struggled nationally. He averages at just under 3 percent support in the polls, according to Real Clear Politics.

He warned other candidates were in similar situations and that the historically large 2020 field “is about to narrow dramatically.”

“Booker might not be in this race for much longer — the same is true for other important voices in the field,” Demissie wrote.

He argued there probably only four campaigns with the “money necessary to build and sustain the national organization needed to win,” presumably referring to former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, who raised more money last quarter than any other candidate.

Candidates often use sky-is-falling language in fundraising emails, but Demissie insisted that is not the case for Booker — even if he is hoping to use the warning to raise money.

“I want to be clear: This isn’t an end-of-quarter stunt or another one of those memos from a campaign trying to spin the press,” he wrote. “This is a real, unvarnished look under the hood of our operation at a level of transparency unprecedented in modern presidential campaigns.”

Booker and the rest of the Democratic field will address Iowa Democrats at the Polk County Steak Fry Saturday as some candidates have begun taking more drastic action to try to shake up what has been a surprisingly static race so far.

Money is typically what forces candidates out of a presidential contest. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Friday became the latest candidate to quit the race after realizing he had no chance of making the October debate stage.

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Is America ready for an 80-year-old commander in chief?

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The Democratic presidential nomination was open, and it was the vice president’s turn — at long last.

His loyalty to the administration was unquestionable, his credentials were unimpeachable and his politics aligned with the dominant forces within the party. There was no glaring reason for Democrats not to turn to him, except for this: He was old.

This was in 1952, more than a half-century ago, when Alben W. Barkley, Harry’s Truman’s 74-year-old vice president, came to the Chicago convention convinced that his moment at the top of the ticket was finally at hand, only to be greeted by union leaders who had the power to thwart him and who’d decided to do just that.

“We can’t sell Barkley to labor,” one of them announced, “not because of his record, but because of his age.”

And that was that. Lashing out at “certain self-appointed political labor leaders,” Barkley withdrew from the race and gave up his dream. Two years later, intent on disproving the notion that he was too frail for national politics, Barkley won back his old Senate seat from Kentucky, but he soon suffered a fatal heart attack while delivering a speech. His death came nearly a year before his term as president would have ended.

When it comes to serving as president, the Constitution sets only a minimum age, not a maximum one. But Barkley was butting up against a notion that prevailed until recently in American history: that there was an informal limit on how old a president could be, and that it was — roughly speaking — the late 60s.

This had something to do with life expectancy and with the widespread adoption by the early 20th century of 65 as a standard retirement age. There was also the cautionary case of William Henry Harrison, who was 68 years and 23 days old when he was inaugurated as president in March 1841 — and 68 years and 54 days old when he died a month later.

The three septuagenarian Democrats now running — Bernie Sanders (78), Joe Biden (76) and Elizabeth Warren (70) — and the current 73-year-old occupant of the White House all demonstrate that it’s no longer remarkable for someone over 70 to seek the presidency or even to win it. Clearly, that old informal age cap has been raised, but just how high remains unclear, and it looms as a potentially crucial variable as Democrats choose their nominee.

The standards changed because of the 1980 election. Ronald Reagan was the next-in-line Republican candidate, the runner-up in the 1976 nomination fight that went all the way to the convention. But he was also approaching his 70th birthday, a number that was still thought to be prohibitive when it came to launching a campaign. Columnists Roland Evans and Robert Novak declared him “by an objective reckoning, too old to run for president” again.

Reagan went ahead and ran anyway, and questions about his age featured prominently in the campaign. At one point, 64-year-old Sen. Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Democrat, announced that Reagan had inspired him to make his own re-election campaign in 1980 his last. “If I am elected and serve out my term,” Nelson said, “I would be as old as Reagan is now. And that’s too old to run.”

President Ronald Reagan gestures as he participates in a White House East Room news conference on Feb. 21, 1985 in Washington.Ron Edmonds / AP file

It was the growing power of television that allowed Reagan, a trained actor, to assuage these fears with command performances in highly visible moments.

There was the Republican primary debate where he dusted off an old movie line — “I am paying for this microphone!” — to turn the New Hampshire race in his favor. And there was his single showdown with President Jimmy Carter, when Reagan used a pair of devastating lines — “There you go again” and “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” — to transform a close contest into a landslide. Critics said he was mangling facts, but the Reagan that millions of Americans encountered in 1980 was sharp, confident and quick-witted.

Four years later, running for re-election at age 73, Reagan’s lead over Democrat Walter Mondale was briefly threatened when he appeared confused during an October debate and gave a series of halting and meandering responses. With the country watching closely in the next debate, Reagan returned to his form and famously defused the matter of age with a joke about not making an issue of his 56-year-old opponent’s “youth and inexperience.”

The Reagan years hardly ended the debate over age and the presidency. His second term produced further concerns about possible mental decline and later, after he left the White House, came his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Nonetheless, Reagan remained in office for two full terms and departed just short of 78 years old with strong popularity.

When it comes to the question of age, his presidency absolutely shifted the goal posts.

Since Reagan, three more septuagenarians have been nominated for president: 73-year-old Bob Dole in 1996; 72-year-old John McCain in 2008; and 70-year-old Donald Trump in 2016. There was also 68-year-old George H.W. Bush in 1992 and 69-year-old Hillary Clinton in ’16; both would have governed as septuagenarians had they won. Now there’s the possibility that in 2020 both parties will field candidates who are 70-something.

But this campaign may still test limits. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that more than six in 10 Americans say they’d have reservations about a candidate over 75 years old. Neither party has yet nominated someone that old, but both Biden and Sanders are past that threshold. Assuming good health, they’d each reach 80 in a first term — uncharted territory for a commander in chief. Will this matter to voters?

Jimmy Carter, 95, said this week he hoped there would be an age limit for the presidency and confessed he couldn’t have done the job at 80.

The question is particularly key when it comes to Biden, the Democratic front-runner. On policy, he’s largely in line with today’s Democratic orthodoxy, and polls continue to show him outpacing his rivals in match-ups against Trump. In many ways, he’s the logical heir to his party’s nomination. But in the most widely seen moments of the campaign, the televised debates, Biden has so far delivered shaky performances that have aroused concerns about whether his age is showing too much.

The example of Reagan is worth returning to here. Because he excelled when the spotlight was brightest, he could convince voters that his age didn’t matter. If Biden continues to struggle in the spotlight, he risks voters deciding that his age does.

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