WATERLOO, Iowa (AP) - On his first trip to Iowa as a presidential candidate, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker urged Democratic activists in small towns 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.
Booker opened his first day of campaigning in the early voting presidential caucus state using the rhetoric reminiscent of the civil rights movement to distinguish himself early in the race. And although Iowa is a vastly white state, Booker's is a sentiment that echoes within the state's Democratic base.
In a crowded church basement in Mason City, Booker likened denying health care coverage to denying 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.
It's a theme that appeals to Nancy Bobo, a white Des Moines Democrat who likes Booker.
"I think more and more people are seeing that social justice doesn't just apply to race," said Bobo, who was among the first supporters of Democrat Barack Obama in Iowa in 2007. "When I think of social justice, I think of all the different laws and structures that impede opportunities for people for a whole range of reasons."
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.
Throughout his events, Booker sprinkled in references to civil rights figure John Lewis, a longtime Democratic congressman from Georgia.
"I want to try to rekindle in all of us the idea that this has got to be a moment in this nation that is more than just about an election," he told the audience in Mason City. "This is about the cause of our country."
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 was campaigning in Cedar Rapids and planned to visit Iowa City on Friday and continue to stops in Marshalltown and Des Moines on Saturday.
Associated Press writer Brian Slodysko contributed from Washington.