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Scott MacKay Commentary: The Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton Presidential Challenge

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Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders has become the leading challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. Rhode Island Public Radio...

Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders has become the leading challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. Rhode Island Public Radio political analyst Scott MacKay, a former Vermont reporter, spent a few days in the Green Mountain state parsing the Sanders campaign.

Scott MacKay's commentary: Bernie Sanders may be a presidential long-shot, but he's giving frontrunner Hillary Clinton a run for her money.

On Church Street in Burlington, Vermont you can buy 37  varieties of designer chocolate, a pair of $178 blue jeans and sample scores of craft beers. You can’t get a hammer, fill a prescription or buy a quart of milk. Don’t even think about purchasing a pack of cigarettes; even if you could you couldn’t light up on this smoke-free boutique avenue.

Three floors up, in a nondescript office building with a small 'Bernie 2016' sign in the window, a throng of fresh-faced college-age folks are clicking away on laptops. There you can fork up  $15 for a  Bernie for President T-shirt (union made, of course), or take home a free lawn sign or bumper strip.

Welcome to ground zero of the improbable presidential campaign of Vermont’s left-leaning U.S. Senator  Sanders, known universally as Bernie. A rumpled curmudgeon who combs his nimbus of white hair with a fan, the 73-year old fixture  of Vermont politics has emerged as the leading challenger to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

Sanders has been drawing big crowds at rallies in such liberal bastions as Madison, Wisconsin and Portland, Maine. He has leveraged the power of internet fundraising to harvest more than $15 million in campaign money. While Clinton rakes in money from Wall Street and $1,000-per-person fundraisers in such venues as Rhode Island's monied East Greenwich (Updike's Eastwick)  and New York's Hamptons (Home to the mega-rich since Gatsby's day) , the average Sanders donation is less than $50.

Sanders campaign is fueled  by a coterie of loyalists who have been with him for decades. Some hail back to 1981, when he stunned his adopted state by winning election as mayor of Burlington, the scenic, new-agey college town overlooking Lake Champlain that is his small state’s largest city. He defeated a local Democratic machine that had grown so rusty it couldn’t steal a 10-vote election.

Burlington is home to the University of Vermont, New England’s fifth-oldest college. Once a dozy college town, the city has evolved into a center for arts, innovation and tourism. The Church Street boutiques cater to the well-off, but Sanders doesn’t. An unreconstructed New Dealer fond of quoting Franklin Roosevelt, the self-described "small d" socialist is running as a working class hero.

So far, he has given Clinton heartburn as he gains traction in the two early caucus and primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. In May, Clinton was sitting on a 34-point lead in polls in the kickoff primary state of New Hampshire. A recent poll showed her lead over Sanders has dwindled to 8 points.

Clinton supporters have noticed. Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill went on a cable TV show to describe Sanders economic proposals as ``extreme.’’ She also blasted the media for failing to mention often enough that Sanders is a socialist.

So far, this attempt at branding Sanders as an unelectable reincarnation of the 1972 George McGovern Democratic presidential candidacy hasn’t dimmed his appeal.

Sanders’ message is focused on income inequality. He supports free public college tuition, raising the minimum wage to $15 and raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for infrastructure investments and protecting social security. Sanders supports a Canadian-style single-payer health care system. He emphasizes that unlike Clinton, then a senator from New York, he voted against the Iraq War during the George W. Bush presidency.

So far Sanders has eclipsed other aspirants seeking to become the prime Clinton challenger, including former Rhode Island senator and governor Linc Chafee, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley and onetime Virginia senator Jim Webb.

In this time of populism on both the left and right, Sanders speaks to the anxieties of working and middle-class voters who fear their children are growing up a country that no longer provides a level playing field for people willing to work their way up the economic ladder. His supporters view the system as rigged in favor of the one-percent, the big banks and fossil-fuel giants.

Except for some sophomoric writing in the 1970s in an alternative Vermont newspaper, the defunct Vermont Freeman, Sanders has little of the baggage that has derailed the campaigns of male baby-boom era candidates. He doesn’t know how to steal. He isn’t a womanizer a la Gary Hart and John Edwards (or Bill Clinton). Despite Vermont’s being the home of the jam band Phish and the state’s reputation as a live-and-let live place where home-grown pot has been de facto legal for a generation or more, Sanders never indulged. No one who knows him well has ever seen  him drink anything more than a single glass of wine or smoke anything stronger than a rare Marlboro.

Sanders has long been more Walter Reuther, the legendary  UAW auto union leader and civil rights advocate, than LSD guru Timothy Leary. As was the case with Reuther, Sanders is a social democrat.

With his fingernails-on-the chalkboard Brooklyn accent and leftist sloganeering, Sanders seems an unlikely presidential candidate. He is Vermont’s version of Rhode Island U.S. Sen. Jack Reed. Like Reed, he hails from a modest upbringing, was first elected to Congress in 1990 and wins re-election to the Senate with better than 70 percent of the vote. Unlike Reed, he never served in the military, but he has become a champion of programs to help military veterans. His Senate voting record is similar to Reed's, even if his flamboyant style is in stark relief to the buttoned-down Rhode Islander.

``I think Bernie is a really authentic voice,'' says Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Clinton supporter.

Some observers see him as a flash-in-the pan, picking up steam only among voters who resemble his Vermont constituents – white, educated,  liberals.  Even if he wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, skeptics wonder how he will connect with such core Democratic voters as African-Americans, Latinos and union members. His rural state is among America’s whitest and unions aren’t strong.

Sanders  has never run a negative television spot in 40 years in politics. His top consultant, Providence native Tad Devine, says that even if he wanted to make an attack ad, Sanders wouldn’t let him. ``The first two states have a demographic Democratic voter base that is much like Vermont,’’ says Devine.

Devine acknowledges the challenges Sanders faces in expanding his appeal. ``But he does have a good story to tell,’’ he says.

For example, Devine says Sanders will underscore his immigrant "American Dream’’ roots. Sanders' Jewish father escaped Hitler’s wartime Europe and settled in New York. A salesman, he worked hard enough to put Sanders through the University of Chicago and send his brother to Harvard.

Despite his fundraising prowess and traction in polls, Sanders remains the longest of shots to win the Democratic nomination. His allies say that he has made a career about being underestimated in election after election. And they point to 2008, when an Illinois Sen. named Barack Hussein Obama vaulted from obscurity to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Scott MacKay’s Commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and on all Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org

Scott MacKay Commentary: The Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton Presidential Challenge
Scott MacKay Commentary: The Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton Presidential Challenge