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As Horse Race Questions Swirl, Sanders Sticks to His Issues

Chris Jensen/NHPR
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to a full house at the LIttleton Opera House on Monday, August 24.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was back in New Hampshire yesterday, in a swing that took him through the North Country. Over the course of the day, Sanders did his best to stick to the issues, even as continued questions about the Democratic horse-race swirl around the campaign.

Bernie Sanders gives a serious stump speech. He can often go for an hour, before getting to questions from the audience.

Speaking to in a middle school gymnasium in Conway – packed with a crowd of 700 on this Monday morning – Sanders acknowledged this propensity for lengthy orations.

"You’ve been very patient and kind in this hot gym, listening to me rant for a while," he said. "Ok, I’ll go for another few hours, what the hell."

These speeches are chock full of policy talk. Sanders wants to make public colleges and universities free of tuition. He wants a Medicare-for-all, single-payer healthcare system. And he wants publicly funded elections.

To pay for all this he says he would lift the limit on taxable income, and impose a tax on financial transactions, which he calls a tax on “Wall Street speculation.”

But, in his mind, all the media wants to talk about is the horse race within the presidential primary campaigns.

"Increasingly, what the media sees campaigns being are soap operas and football games rather than a serious discussion about the serious issues facing America," he said Monday.

The serious issue Sanders wants to talk about include youth unemployment, but on this day, reporters seemed genuinely more focused on the football game.

Credit Chris Jensen for NHPR

Today’s question: What does Sanders think of the news, reported in numerous outlets over the weekend, that Vice-President Joe Biden is seriously considering jumping into the race for president?

"What impact it will have on the race I honestly don’t know," Sanders said. "I honestly wish I could tell you but I don’t. Will it help or hurt me, will it help or hurt Hillary Clinton, I just don’t know."

Still, Sanders does have one insight on this issue.

"To be completely honest with you, and this is not a comment on Joe, I think that people understand that there is something profoundly wrong today with establishment politics," Sanders said.

Certainly, when you attend a Sanders campaign event, you don’t find much effusive love for Biden. Suzy Kjellberg from Tamworth, for instance, isn’t about to change her vote.

"Biden seems like a nice man, but after all these years I have to say I don’t really have any sense of him as a person," said Kjellberg. "Which doesn’t bode well for me. It means he slides easily in and out, but that’s not what I want in my president."

There’s little public data that shows what a Biden run would mean for the Democratic primary. But a single poll done by CNN in Iowa hints at whether the pro-Biden vote would be peeled off of an “anybody but Clinton” electorate, or if it would split the so-called "establishment" vote.

The poll found that 58 percent of Biden backers listed Clinton as their second choice, and only 32 percent fell back to Sanders. This suggests that a Biden run might drain more votes from Clinton, rather than Sanders.

But for Sanders, this speculation is just another distraction from what he really wants to do, which is talk about the issues.

"I want you to talk about and force discussion about climate change; do you think you do that enough?" Sanders asked reporters Monday. "I would like you to force discussion on poverty in America. I have talked over and over again about how 51 percent of African American kids are unemployed or underemployed. Do you think that’s an important issue? I do."

Credit Chris Jensen for NHPR
Sanders' remarks were routinely greeted with applause.

Perhaps the real test of Sanders’ candidacy is whether he can persuade voters that these issues are important too.

Voters like Claudia Daniels of Milan, who says she’s skeptical of Clinton and ranks college affordability and defending social security among her top issues.

"Well, I heard that he was going to be here, and so far I’ve seen a lot of him on Facebook and liked what he has to say," Daniels said. "So I thought I’d meet him in person."

And Sanders does have a lot to say.

Credit Chris Jensen for NHPR
The Littleton Opera House was packed and about 200 people watched a telecast from the parking lot.

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