Fresh off a strong debate performance and buoyed by rising poll numbers, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders returned to Iowa with an air of vindication.
"We began this campaign some nine months ago. The media was saying, 'Bernie Sanders, he's an interesting guy, he has interesting ideas … but he's a fringe candidate. … We already have the anointed candidate, the inevitable candidate,'" Sanders told hundreds of supporters gathered Tuesday afternoon at a winery here.
"Well, a lot has happened in the last nine months," he said, "and the inevitable candidate is not quite so inevitable."
The crowd roared in support.
Sanders, the professorial democratic socialist with an unruly cloud of white hair and wildly gesticulating arms, smiled and nodded in approval.
It's a heady time for the independent Vermont senator. On Thursday, a Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll found Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton leading him by 2 percentage points among likely Iowa caucus-goers, well within the poll's margin of error in the state that holds the first nominating contest in the nation in less than two weeks.
The news out of New Hampshire, which holds its primary eight days later, was even better — he has led Clinton in six of the seven polls that had been taken this year. A CNN/WMUR poll released Tuesday had him ahead, 60% to 33%.
On Sunday, in the last Democratic debate before the caucuses, Sanders aggressively confronted Clinton.
On the stump, Sanders connects with the frustrations of liberal voters who are tired of Washington politicians and establishment politics in the same way that GOP front-runner Donald Trump connects with those on the right.
Sanders rails against injustices that he says are harming working families: the economy is "rigged," the disparities in income and wealth among Americans are "grotesque," wages are "too damn low," lax campaign finance rules are "undermining American democracy."
Sanders doesn't criticize Clinton by name, but he draws several distinctions with her, noting he did not vote for the Iraq war, has never been paid six-figure speaking fees by Goldman Sachs and does not support super PACs.
"I don't represent the billionaire class; I never have. I don't represent corporate America; I never have," Sanders told about 200 supporters at a barn in Fort Dodge, Iowa, on Tuesday morning. He said when he kicked off his campaign, he was told he needed a super PAC to compete but refused.
"We decided to do it the old-fashioned way — reach out to middle-class families and ask for their help," he said, adding that he was stunned by the end result — 2.5 million individual contributions that averaged $27.
According to the Des Moines Register, which tracks the candidates in Iowa, Sanders has spent nearly twice as much time in the state as Clinton has. Sanders said he has spoken in front of about 40,000 Iowans, and he hopes to make it to 50,000 by the Feb. 1 caucuses. Indeed, many in the crowd, such as Mike and Terry McCarville of Manson, had seen him speak before and were committed supporters.
"There's no difference between the Democrats and the Republicans — they're all establishment politicians. He's not," said Mike McCarville, 62. "He's not bought and paid for. That's the biggest thing."