After struggling to gain momentum in the 2020 presidential race, Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerDOJ announces agencywide limits on chokeholds and no-knock entries Fighting poverty, the Biden way Top Senate Democrats urge Biden to take immediate action on home confinement program MORE (D-N.J.) has been given a chance for a breakout moment at next week's debate: a faceoff with former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrat threatens to vote against party's spending bill if HBCUs don't get more federal aid Overnight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Haitians stuck in Texas extend Biden's immigration woes MORE, with whom he has already tussled for weeks.
While much speculation has surrounded a possible second confrontation between Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisStefanik in ad says Democrats want 'permanent election insurrection' Live coverage: California voters to decide Newsom's fate Florida woman faces five years in prison for threatening to kill Harris MORE (D-Calif.) and Biden, strategists and advisers say Booker could also stand to benefit from confronting Biden when they stand next to each other on the debate stage on July 31.
Booker has already been one of Biden’s sharpest and most vocal critics among the 2020 contenders, notably going after Biden's comments about working with segregationist senators decades ago.
Booker has also gone hard after Biden on criminal justice reform, eliciting a stark defense from the former vice president's camp on Wednesday, signaling a feud that's becoming intensely personal.
"The whole debate format is so that voters can see the differences between the candidates," said Jim Demers, a veteran Democratic strategist who is informally advising Booker’s campaign.
The difference could be especially relevant on race issues, as Biden and Booker have tangled on policies related to civil rights, including criminal justice reform.
"Clearly there’s a big difference here, and I think Cory Booker challenging Joe Biden on this issue is important," Demers added. "It’s going to open up a lot of attention when the two of them are on stage next week."
Booker, a junior senator from New Jersey and former mayor of Newark, has struggled to stand out in a crowded field of more than two dozen candidates.
He got a boost after a performance in the first debate that Booker described as a "solid double," with his campaign reporting its second-best fundraising day right after the event.
But Booker has yet to break into the top tier of candidates and has yet to qualify for the fall debates, which will have much tougher criteria.
Entry will require candidates to register at least 2 percent support in four or more national polls or statewide polls in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina as well as donations from at least 130,000 individual donors.
And like other candidates, a good and memorable debate performance has the potential to catapult him in the polls.
Fellow 2020 contender Harris, for example, used her confrontation with Biden over his opposition to school busing in the 1970s to launch herself into the top tier in the polls after the first debate.
Biden could be a similarly useful foil for Booker, who has already shown a willingness to go after the former vice president.
The New Jersey senator attracted attention after attacking Biden last month over comments the former vice president made about his working relationships with two segregationist senators in the 1970s.
Booker also recently hit Biden over criminal justice reform, calling him an "architect of mass incarceration," referring to a 1994 crime bill that Biden helped pass in the Senate that has been widely criticized as having led to a surge in the number of African Americans sent to prison.
That attack especially stung the Biden camp, with his campaign quickly hitting back with a statement from Kate Bedingfield, the deputy campaign manager, on Wednesday.
“We thought we would begin to respond now,” said the statement, which went on to deplore “the absurdity” of Booker’s “mass incarceration” comment while attacking the senator’s record as mayor of Newark.
Booker hit Biden again on Friday, in an indication that the animosity between the two sides is unlikely to subside, calling the former vice president's attacks on him "ridiculous."
"I will always speak truth to power, and watching the crime bills of the '80s and the '90s all of the things that he put into place, this is something that should be talked about," Booker told NBC News.
"The response to having substantive conversations about people's records shouldn't be to go on the attack, and I found his attacks on me ridiculous," he continued.
While Booker has strongly signaled that he will go after Biden on criminal justice reform, strategists also said Booker needed to find other ways to draw a contrast with the front-runner beyond race issues.
“Booker has already pretty much signaled that [the crime bill] will be a possible line of attack against Biden, so, obviously, this is something Biden needs to prepare for, but Booker has to come up with something more than just one issue,” Deshundra Jefferson, a former Democratic National Committee official, said in an interview with The Hill.
Most prominently, strategists said Booker, who is 50 years old, could draw a contrast on age against the 76-year-old Biden — an attack that South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegOn The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Pelosi plows full speed ahead on jam-packed agenda Blumenthal calls on Buttigieg to investigate American Airlines-JetBlue partnership LGBT film festival to premiere documentary about Pete Buttigieg MORE and former presidential candidate Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellOvernight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Schumer: Dem unity will happen eventually; Newsom prevails How lawmakers aided the Afghan evacuation MORE (D-Calif.) touched on during the last debate.
The New Jersey senator’s compelling life story made national headlines when he was running for mayor in Newark, as he is a Stanford and Yale Law graduate who chose to live in low-income housing.
Booker lost against longtime Mayor Sharpe James (D) in 2002 but went on to win four years later after James decided not to pursue reelection.
Strategists say Booker is seen as a younger, charismatic figure, and that is a contrast they believe could help him stand apart from Biden.
“He needs to really paint Biden as a follower, or a bellwether for current sentiment, rather than a leader who will move the country forward,” Jefferson said. “If he’s going to ding him, he’s going to have to really show that there is a trend with Biden, that he is out of touch, that he doesn’t currently understand what’s currently going on in America.”
However, there are risks. Jefferson also warned that the same uplifting, positive message with which Booker has run his elections so far could also prove a hindrance if an attack is perceived as unfair and out of step with that persona.
“For you to kind of have that positive kumbaya message and then to attack Biden, it looks kind of desperate,” Jefferson said.
Booker also likely won’t be the only other candidate on stage itching to take on Biden, with Harris seen as angling for another dig at the former vice president, while other confrontations among the rest of Democratic contingent could take center stage.
Focusing excessively on Biden could also deprive Booker of a chance to define himself to the millions expected to watch.
“Undermining Biden is one thing, but how does that boost you up? What is your vision? And is your vision credible and believable to voters? What is different about your vision than Kamala Harris, than Pete Buttigieg, than [Sen.] Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenFederal Reserve officials' stock trading sparks ethics review Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants Warren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack MORE [D-Mass.], than [Sen.] Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats urge Biden to commute sentences of 4K people on home confinement Briahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' Sanders 'disappointed' in House panel's vote on drug prices MORE [I-Vt.], than Joe Biden?” Jefferson said, listing some of the 2020 contenders.
Still, former Booker advisers are confident he can navigate the debate and use it as a platform to boost his campaign by alternating between a positive message and skillful attacks.
“I think that’s going to be his key to success, being that genuine Cory Booker who believes in unity,” said Mark Alexander, the dean of Villanova Law School and former adviser to Booker during his Newark mayoral run.
“Having said that, if he sees a way in which he is differing from somebody else, he will not hesitate to say that,” he added. “He’s a skilled debater, a well-trained lawyer and politician.”