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Inside Warren’s early-state sleeper campaign

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WASHINGTON — Late last month, Gabriel di Chiara Spada, a political operative for Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, showed up at The Writer’s Block bookstore in downtown Las Vegas to hear children read emotional accounts about President Donald Trump’s plan to end the “temporary protected status” for immigrants from certain countries.

“Separating families is wrong, no matter which agency or program or court is responsible,” he tweeted along with a picture of an 8-year-old girl reading an op-ed about children who are U.S. citizens being cut off from parents who are not. “The words of these kids proves it.”

It’s a bit unusual for a presidential campaign’s staff to invest time in events that aren’t directly related to the candidate’s election. But for Warren’s team, it’s all part of the plan: A small army of her organizers has deployed to early-voting states and embedded into local communities.

“She is generating buzz because her campaign shows up everywhere,” said one prominent Nevada Democrat who asked to remain anonymous to give a candid assessment. “Every time there’s a community event, there is Warren representation there.”

By pitching in locally, Warren’s organizers hope to demonstrate at a personal level that they are investing in the concerns of the same voters — and potential volunteers — whose support they are courting for the Massachusetts Democrat at the federal level. It’s just one part of a political organizing operation designed to match Warren’s message of igniting a movement, voter by voter, that creates “big, structural change” in the country.

“We have to build something that has a line through the primaries, through the general election, through getting Congress to do big things,” said the Warren campaign’s chief strategist, Joe Rospars, who worked on Barack Obama’s two winning bids for the presidency.

That idea is to mobilize a force not only on election days, but also to use activism to move Congress on issues for which there is broad existing public support — restrictions on military-style semi-automatic weapons, for example — as well as on those where a president might want to change public opinion.

The secret to Warren’s success — so far — has been talking to voters about the issues that motivate them and the ones that motivate her.

Democratic officials and operatives in early-voting states told NBC News that they started noticing the Massachusetts senator’s organizers integrating themselves into nonpolitical community activities many months ago, a sign that her first-out-of-the-box New Year’s Eve launch date may turn out to have been a good decision. As others have scrambled to get going, her campaign is widely cited as the most developed in Iowa, which kicks off the primary season with its caucuses in February.

Warren’s bounce in Iowa, where she gained 12 percentage points in four months to get to 19 percent among likely Democratic caucusgoers in the latest Monmouth University poll, has been attributed in part to her team’s work on the ground.

“A strong field organization seems to have given Warren a boost,” Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute, said.

Veteran Democratic operatives are taking note of Warren’s innovations — most of which have been tested before in longer-arc campaigns than the primaries and caucuses of the presidential nominating contest — and they say she could have an edge in tightly fought battles as a result.

“What the Warren campaign is doing at the hyperlocal level to tie traditional grassroots organizing with nonpolitical organizing within communities in a very methodical way puts her ahead of the presidential field on the ground,” said Adam Parkhomenko, a former aide to Hillary Clinton, who ran the Ready for Hillary Super PAC before joining Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

If she’s going to get blown out in a state, the organizing might not matter so much. But in a close statewide race — or if delegate accumulation ends up making a difference at the national convention — Warren’s organizing force could be a crucial factor.

This isn’t the first time she’s raised the eyebrows of the Democratic operative class. But where faces are now stretched in impressed surprise, they were once contorted with one eyebrow cocked in self-assured disapproval.

She was roundly second-guessed — even mocked — in party circles after declining to hire consultants, announcing she wouldn’t hold high-dollar fundraisers and burning through what appeared to be limited cash reserves to hire staff by the score.

Then Warren began a steady rise in national and early state polls, banked $19 million in the second fundraising quarter — all while she was using her time to take questions from, and selfies with, voters — and turned in widely praised performances in the first two Democratic debates of the 2020 cycle.

A Quinnipiac survey released Tuesday showed her trailing front-runner Joe Biden, 32 percent to 21 percent — having closed their gap by 9 points since a July 29 poll. The poll of 807 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents had a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points.

It turns out that traveling the country and hiring hundreds of operatives to work on digital fundraising, grassroots organizing and other campaign tasks was a solid plan for raking in the kind of cash haul that can be replicated in small-dollar donations for months to come.

Of course, not all of her upward trajectory owes to her political organizing, but her team says it is confident that its investment of money and labor is paying dividends in the form of building a multiplying force for Warren on the ground.

It starts with the simple idea of one-on-one contact, which reflects the now-famous approach Warren herself takes on the campaign trail. She waits patiently to talk with voters after town hall meetings, poses for pictures with them in seemingly endless selfie lines all across the country, and surprises them with personal telephone calls.

The all-across-the-country part matters because this could be a long-haul nominating contest, as the last two competitive Democratic primaries were, and Warren aides say her organizing strategy should look much the same in later-voting states as it does now.

In the early states, her paid organizers work to echo her effect by welcoming in volunteers, many of whom come in asking to help at the national level with a text message or through the campaign’s website.

The staff at the national headquarters, where operatives work together in one big room and most specialists have experience in other areas of a campaign, coordinates closely with the organizers on the ground to make sure volunteers are tapped into quickly and given tasks that align with the time and skills they can offer.

“In Iowa, if you are willing to raise your hand, you will be having coffee with an organizer within 24 hours,” Rospars said. “We’re in service of the volunteers who are actually going to do the work.”

Trav Robertson, the Democratic Party chairman in South Carolina, said Warren’s is among a handful of campaigns that have put boots on the ground in the early stages of the race. He said he hasn’t seen as much community involvement from the Warren campaign as others have, but that he anticipates that may be coming.

“They are in a position that they are in the process of putting together a good grassroots organization,” he said. “They are fixing to make a significant investment in a field organization.”

But other Democrats in the state privately say Warren’s team has clearly been doing more than the competition — both at expressly political events and at those with no direct relationship to the election: for instance, Warren organizers provided food and drinks for teachers at an “All Out” protest in May and participated in “Lights Out For Liberty” vigils across the state in support of migrants in detention camps on the U.S.-Mexico border.

In theory — and in practice, if it works — Warren’s campaign isn’t just talking about representing communities, it’s becoming a part of those communities.

“If all politics are local, we want to ensure that we’re embedding ourselves in the community,” Richard McDaniel, Warren’s national organizing director, said.



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Children not exempt from Trump’s toughest asylum policy, officials say

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Following the Supreme Court’s decision to allow the Trump administration to go forward with its toughest asylum policy to date, officials from the Department of Justice and Homeland Security on Friday detailed how they would begin enforcement, including by turning back children who arrive at the southern border without their parents.

The new policy would make asylum seekers ineligible if they passed through another country on their way to the United States and did not first seek asylum there. The officials said they will return immigrants who arrived in the U.S. on or after July 16 to their home countries if they cannot prove they sought asylum elsewhere.

Immigration and human rights advocates have decried the policy, claiming it is in violation of the international right to claim asylum regardless of how one arrives in the country where they are seeking protection. Those arguments are still playing out in lower courts, which could ultimately end in the policy’s reversal.

Even if asylum seekers are denied protection by another country, they are still eligible to apply in the United States, a DHS official said, if they can prove they tried to seek it elsewhere.

The officials said unaccompanied migrant children are awarded some additional protections, but will not be exempt from the rule.

Some exceptions do apply. For example, if an asylum seeker can prove to U.S. authorities that he or she has a fear of torture if returned home, they would be allowed to seek protection under the Convention Against Torture in the United States. Immigrants can also appeal their deportation decisions to an immigration judge.

The Trump administration has said the new policy is necessary to weed out asylum claims that are not likely to end in a favorable decision in court. Currently, the majority of initial claims for asylum are accepted but then ultimately denied by a judge. Due to a court backlog of over 400,000 asylum claims, many asylum seekers live in the United States for years before their court date or do not show up for their hearing.

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Julián Castro accused Joe Biden of ‘forgetting.’ Did he go too far?

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HOUSTON — Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro was looking for a boost to his presidential campaign when he took a jab at front-runner Joe Biden in a clash over health care in Thursday night’s debate, but the remark has since made him the target of heated criticism over whether he took a disrespectful shot at an elder candidate.

“Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” Castro asked Biden, making many viewers wonder whether he was questioning the former vice president’s mental acuity. “Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago?”

Following the debate, Biden’s advisers hit hard on Castro’s comments, saying he hadn’t learned the lessons of previous attacks on Biden — that they backfire. “It was a cheap shot and a question Castro should answer,” said Anita Dunn, a Biden adviser.

Maya Rupert, Castro’s campaign manager, said the campaign was concerned about the backlash and disputed the suggestion that Castro was implying something about Biden’s fitness. She said Castro would have offered the same critique to anyone who did what Biden did, “making the mistake and then doubling down and saying he didn’t say what he just said.”

“Anyone who reverses their position like that on stage in real time would have been open to that type of criticism on stage,” Rupert said. “You are literally forgetting what you said. The idea that he crossed some line, I don’t think that’s fair.”

The campaign also thought it was a fair strike at Biden’s health insurance plan and whether it covers people who lose their health care when they lose their job. NBC News took a close look at the exchange, finding the two candidates were largely talking past each other. Castro articulated a real divide on policy, but Biden described his plan largely accurately.

Disrespect or fair shot?

Nonetheless, many viewers said Castro went too far.

Gerson Borrero, a longtime New York City political commentator and columnist, said he was “disappointed” over the comments.

“In a cultural way, it shocked me,” Borrero said. “We respect our elders — there may be a point where we smile at their ‘disparates’ (gaffes), but at the same time we stay respectful.”

“He could have turned it around and asked Biden to clear things up and said, ‘I’m confused,’” said Borrero, who found it “troubling that Julián was disconnected to the audience reaction,” referring to the audible “ooooo” that reverberated through the room when Castro made the comment to Biden.

Throughout his campaign, Castro frequently talks about his grandmother, often reverentially, when he speaks about health care challenges and other issues; she helped raise him.

University of Maryland political scientist Stella Rouse said Castro “went somewhere where he didn’t need to go.”

“I think it will do more to turn people off — I don’t think he did himself any favors and I don’t think it will move the needle a lot,” said Rouse, adding that many Latinos like Biden.

Others saw the exchange differently.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., who is backing Kamala Harris, said after the debate that Castro decided to make sure he was relevant to the debate and “he found an opening and he took it.”

Castro’s defenders also questioned whether the criticism he got was tinged with some racial bias.

Mayra Macias, executive director of Latino Victory Fund, which has endorsed Castro and works to get Latinos elected to public office, said Castro’s role in the primary campaign has been to push the conversations deeper and hold candidates accountable. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has done it many times and escaped attack, Macias said, as have other candidates.

“When a brown man is calling out a prominent white man, why is there this backlash that I don’t think would have happened if Senator Sanders was the one telling Vice President Biden if he forgot?” Macias said.

The backlash contrasts with the swing Castro took at Texas rival Beto O’Rourke when he chided him in the first debate for failing to do his homework on immigration. That clash was seen as Castro’s breakout moment and contributions to his campaign spiked.



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Ratings for third Democratic debate underscore continued interest in 2020 election

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The third Democratic presidential debate attracted an average of 14 million viewers on ABC and Univision Thursday night, according to data released by the broadcaster — a strong showing and an indication that public interest in the 2020 election is high.

The debate was boosted by the inclusion of all three Democratic front-runners on the same stage for the first time in the election cycle, with former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders squaring off over health care and many other topics. The first two debates were spread out over two nights due to the deep roster of people running for the Democratic nomination.

But with the Democratic Party elevating the requirements to make the debate, only 10 candidates qualified for Thursday’s event, a field small enough to fit on a single stage — and on a single night.

It is the third-straight debate in which viewership has outpaced most other Democratic debates. ABC’s debate also had to contend with an NFL football game, which routinely draw sizable audiences.

Night One of the first Democratic presidential debate drew 15.3 million viewers across NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo, with the second night drawing 18 million viewers — a record for a Democratic debate, according to data from Nielsen, a media tracking company.

Night One of the second debate, hosted by CNN, drew 8.7 million viewers, with the second night drawing 10.7 million viewers — also both well ahead of previous ratings for other Democratic debates.

ABC News also said it drew more than 2.9 million visitors for its digital coverage and 11 million video views.

While there are still about 10 months to go before the 2020 Democratic National Convention, debate ratings have indicated continued interest from voters. A recent poll from CNN also found that voters in both parties are “extremely enthusiastic” about voting at levels that easily outpace previous election cycles.

Voters won’t have to wait long for another event. The fourth debate is scheduled for Oct. 15 (and possibly Oct. 16 if enough candidates qualify) and will be co-hosted by CNN and The New York Times. It is scheduled to take place in Westerville, Ohio.



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