PETERBOROUGH, N.H. – Bernie Sanders embarked on a two-day tour in New Hampshire Thursday as the candidate to beat, speaking to hundreds of supporters in a state where polls have the Democratic Socialist poised to prevail in the nation’s first primary, now just 18 days away.
“Our candidacy was considered to be a fringe candidacy,” Sanders said in a creaky gymnasium here in his first speech of the day. “Media thought my hair was just beautiful, but other than that, they didn’t think we had much of a chance.”
“Well,” Sanders added. “The world has changed a little bit in the last nine months.”
Embracing Donald Trump tactics, Sanders then gave a thorough account of recent polls, which all but proclaim him the Democratic frontrunner.
Nearly every recent national, New Hampshire and Iowa poll show a Bernie bounce, including a recent CNN/WMUR poll that has Sanders slaying Hillary Clinton in the Granite State, 60 percent to 33 percent.
The rosy poll numbers have created newfound media interest in Sanders. More than a dozen local and national television crews trailed the senator Thursday, a sizable increase in the media scrum from just a few weeks ago.
While Sanders’ large lead here is often justified by Vermont’s close proximity to New Hampshire, his staffers vigorously dispute this claim — not wanting a potential Granite State victory to be discredited by political pundits.
But on Thursday, the Vermont senator played up his connection to the Granite State, early and often. At one point, he even called New Hampshire “my sister state.”
In further geographic pandering, Sanders seasoned his standard stump speech with a number of references to his record as Burlington’s mayor, asking crowds: “Have many of you been to Burlington?”
He talked about boosting voter turnout in the Queen City, establishing a city arts commission and improving opportunities for children, among other initiatives.
“As many of you here know it, we transformed that city in so many ways to make it one of the more beautiful, livable small cities in America and I’m proud of what we accomplished,” Sanders said.
Sanders crisscrossed a couple of counties on the tour, but held the majority of his events in Hillsborough County, a southern section of the state that voted for Clinton in the 2008 primary.
While the Sand Man’s main policy points emerged in every meeting, he zeroed in on different topics in different towns.
At a noon speech in Peterborough, Sanders defended Social Security in front of seniors. In Nashua, at a Radisson hotel that resembled a medieval castle, the Vermont senator spoke about poverty. In Hooksett and Wolfeboro, Sanders talked about his climate plan and respected environmentalist Bill McKibben backed him up.
McKibben, a Vermonter and co-founder of environmental organization 350.org, told a crowd of students at a college banquet hall in Hooksett that Sanders was “kicking butt.”
“We were all excited that he was running, but, truth be told, nobody really thought he was going to be winning the way he is now,” McKibben continued.
McKibben highlighted a number of troubling climate statistics, including the recent finding that 2015 was the hottest year on record. He praised Sanders’ early opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, and said Bernie represented Vermonters admirably.
“He knows everybody in the state,” McKibben said. “And they all know that when he says he is for the little guy, he is telling the truth.”
Beyond Keystone, Sanders has been aggressive in his opposition to other proposed pipelines, including the Bakken pipeline in Iowa and the Kinder pipeline in New Hampshire.
For the first time, Sanders also publicly opposed a Vermont pipeline project that would run from Colchester to Middlebury.
The McKibben support follows recent campaign efforts to discredit Clinton’s environmental record. This week, campaign spokesman Michael Briggs pushed out a press release demanding Clinton release a comprehensive energy plan.
“What’s taking so long? Is there a pattern here?” Briggs vented in the Wednesday statement. “It took the former secretary of state four years to take a stand on the Keystone pipeline, which would carry some of the dirtiest oil on the planet across the United States.”
Sanders leveled a few specific digs against Clinton on Thursday around her establishment status, but nothing was new. In references to recent polls, Sanders aimed to stem Clinton’s most recent arguments that he is unelectable and his proposals are unrealistic. The former secretary of state’s most recent criticism revolves around Sanders’ Medicare-for-all plan.
“Sanders has been in Congress for 25 years,” Clinton said in Iowa Thursday. “He’s introduced his healthcare bill nine times. But he never got a single vote in the House or a single Senate co-sponsor. Not one.”
Sanders said Clinton’s attacks were baseless, adding “in the last week or two of the campaign a lot of stuff gets thrown around.”
Sanders’ longest indictment came in Hooksett, where he went on a bit of a ramble about the evils of Goldman Sachs without specifically referencing Clinton’s ties to the financial powerhouse.
He spoke in detail about Goldman’s involvement in creating a subprime mortgage crisis before bemoaning the lack of jail time for big bankers.
“If you destroy the entire United States economy — millions of people losing their jobs, their homes and their life savings – nothing happens to you.”
“No, you get a bonus!” a man in the crowd interjected.
“You get a bonus, yup,” Sanders responded. “Thank you for reminding me.”
New Hampshire is now in the heat of primary season. On Friday, 10 presidential candidates were in the state pleading for votes, including Clinton, Sanders and Martin O’Malley.
Political yard signs dotted back roads and big billboards covered the highways. In an informal poll done driving between events, Trump signs were most common on citizen’s snowy front lawns.
Also spotted, on a section of tar between Peterborough and Hooksett, was Joseph “Papa Joe” Gaudet, a nomad and self-described storyteller who was thumbing for a ride.
Gaudet stood out on the road — sporting a long beard, flowing gray hair and a black cowboy hat emblazoned with red beads.
He also had a Bernie Sanders sticker on his tan jacket, and this reporter recognized him as an audience member at Sanders’ Peterborough town hall.
In the spirit of the latest Bernie Sanders ad, which is set to the song “America,” a Simon & Garfunkel love letter to hitchhiking, this reporter pulled over, and opened the door to the vagabond.
Gaudet talked about politics for a bit, before getting to his own story. He said he has been hitchhiking since age 12, adding he often spends winters living in the woods. His backpack was filled with bare essentials: toothpaste, toothbrush, a wool poncho, a flute.
If you, the reader, are looking for a story within this story, check out the full interview with Papa Joe.
A few highlights: thoughts on Sanders and Obama (:30), the life of a hitchhiker (4:00), reflections on being a military therapist during the Cold War on the border of Czechoslovakia (10:15).
Gaudet’s Kerouacian lifestyle is by its very nature idealistic and romantic. He brushed off any idea that living outdoors in the winter was dangerous and said he was confident that Americans were good-hearted people, who would always offer him food or lodging in a time of need.
His politics, though, were decidedly more pragmatic.
Gaudet said he liked Sanders’ acknowledgement in Peterborough that real change would only come with intense civic engagement by the people, and heavy citizen-lobbying in Congress.
“I really needed to hear him say that he couldn’t do all that stuff by himself,” Gaudet said.” He’s the only one saying that, and it’s true. A president does not make law, and what they are all promising is law changes.”
Gaudet also echoed Clinton’s concerns that Sanders would be hard pressed to push through his progressive policies, referencing Obama’s past battles.
“I thought [Obama] could have stayed a little further to the left,” Gaudet said. “It’s really difficult and I don’t blame him.
“You are president of the United States, not president of the Liberals,” Papa Joe added. “In order to operate you have to stay in the center.”