Hillary starts to 'feel the Bern' in race to presidency
As the battle for the presidential nomination turns in New Hampshire, David Lawler looks at how the race has changed over recent weeks
Published 07/02/2016 | 02:30
He is a septuagenarian senator and self-avowed socialist - but Bernie Sanders is on course for a resounding victory over Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary this week: a win that would set up a dogfight for the Democratic nomination that looked unthinkable just a few months ago.
After running Mrs Clinton to a virtual tie in Iowa, the virulently anti-establishment Vermont senator is now averaging 17 points clear of her in the Granite State.
His anti-capitalist call to arms has inspired millions of young Americans and resonated strongly in the liberal counties of New Hampshire, where Mr Sanders was met with a roar of approval at a rally in Rochester this week.
In the aspirationally named Rochester Opera House, just down the street from the local Clinton campaign headquarters, a boisterous crowd was getting ready to crown Bernie as a future president.
They were hopeful, but they were also angry, and Mr Sanders soon took the stage to promise "a revolution" in US politics and tell them that anger was exactly the right emotion.
Pledging to "take on Wall Street, take on the billionaire class", Mr Sanders insisted that as president, he would fundamentally transform America.
It remains unclear whether his message can really propel him all the way to the nomination - Mrs Clinton still holds a clear lead in many upcoming primary states - but a big loss here would add to the sense that Mrs Clinton's aura of invincibility is fading fast.
Nationally, Mr Sanders has erased a 30-point margin with Mrs Clinton among Democrats in just six weeks, pulling into a statistical tie with the former secretary of state, according to a Quinnipiac University Poll released on Friday.
Among young women, once seen as a reliable voting bloc for Mrs Clinton, more than 80pc support the Vermont senator.
He even outperforms Mrs Clinton in hypothetical general election match-ups with Republicans, and is flush with cash from an unprecedented wave of more than 2.5m small-dollar donations to his campaign.
As Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, put it: "Democrats nationwide are 'feeling the Bern'."
Spurning the advice of some in her party to skip New Hampshire to shore up her leads in South Carolina and Nevada, the next states to vote, Mrs Clinton has taken to the campaign trail with renewed vigour.
Along the way, her advisers tried to spin the new-found competition as a positive, saying Mrs Clinton loathed the "inevitable" label, and "likes a good fight".
Mrs Clinton has countered that Mr Sanders's political revolution is unrealistic, and pitched herself to voters at a rival event earlier that day as "a progressive that gets things done".
Most independent analysts still think the nomination is Mrs Clinton's to lose, but Mr Sanders's grassroots fundraising machine, his appeal to idealistic young voters and Mrs Clinton's lacklustre performances on the stump mean the fight could be longer and dirtier than anyone imagined.
"Hillary has been such an underperforming candidate that it gives him an opening," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Centre for Politics. "The idea he would be the Democratic nominee is, in my mind, laughable. I don't think the Democrats are this stupid, but I'm starting to wonder."
But for supporters like Charles Sawyer, a 74-year-old retired Google software engineer, the Sanders socialist offering is more than just a pipe-dream in an America where wages are flat and inequality has become an overriding political theme.
"Bernie's not appealing to the fear," he enthused. "It's like a constellation in the stars and it comes together to form a picture of what's wrong with our society."
Political revolution, Mr Sanders has reminded voters as he has travelled New Hampshire, begins with victory on Tuesday night, and not just any victory - he needs a big one.