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OPINION

Bernie Sanders can’t win — right?

If he goes unchallenged, he can certainly win Iowa and New Hampshire.

Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a climate rally in Iowa City on Sunday.
Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a climate rally in Iowa City on Sunday.Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

Bernie Sanders can’t win. Bernie Sanders can’t win. Bernie Sanders can’t win.

Or can he?

Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren must be starting to believe it. The proof? People close to her are putting out word that Sanders once told her a woman can’t win the presidency. Sanders denies it. Whatever the truth, it shows that Warren supporters are taking him seriously enough to try to trash him.

His base adores him, and progressives are starting to rally around him. Meanwhile, Warren, who was supposed to be the more electable, progressive alternative to Sanders, has been looking a little shaky — like she can’t take a poke, let alone a punch. After Politico reported on a presidential campaign script that calls for Sanders volunteers to suggest to Iowa voters that Warren is the candidate of the elite, who appeals mainly to highly educated voters, she complained the Sanders campaign is “out to trash me.” Really? In fact, polling backs the reported Sanders campaign assertion as true.

As the two progressives in the race start to really fight it out, the top tier of centrist presidential candidates presents a choice between the old and politically scarred former vice president Joe Biden and the young and politically inexperienced Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Ind. A pair of egotistical billionaires — Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg — hover in the background, along with Senator Amy Klobuchar, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, and a few others who barely register in polls, like Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick.

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Warren has been playing nice, while assuming Sanders would do the same. After all, the senator from Vermont gave Clinton a critical pass during the 2016 primary season, when he famously said during an early debate that Americans “are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails.” Once Clinton sealed the nomination, however, Sanders and his followers couldn’t let go of their bitterness. According to at least one post-2016 election analysis, 1 in 10 people who voted for Sanders in the primaries voted for Trump — not Clinton — in the final.

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This time, Sanders backers seem prepared for an early strike against Warren, before Iowa and New Hampshire. By first putting up her hand for Medicare for All — remember, “I’m with Bernie”? — and then backing away from it, Warren gave him more running room with his natural base.

If she can’t stop him, who will? The rest of the field has left Sanders alone. Yet there’s a growing argument for a Sanders victory, at least for the nomination.

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens makes a strong case for Sanders’ theoretical strength as a candidate: Sanders is Trump from the left. He’s an angry old white guy with a cult-like following who loved the old Soviet Union and is so far out of the mainstream Democratic Party, he’s not even a Democrat. As the Democratic nominee, he would be running against the angry old white guy already in the White House, who also has a cult following and a love for Russia.

It would be a vicious battle between forces that deeply despise each other, and one that a socialist could never win — right? Sanders would need support from every single voter who wants Trump gone, including Democrats, Independents, and every disaffected Trump supporter. Pundits and political consultants who said Trump couldn’t win have been saying the same about Sanders. Yet very soon, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire will become the official deciders of that hypothesis.

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Over the past year, Sanders enjoyed the luxury of being mostly ignored. His health came under some scrutiny when he suffered a heart attack last October. But a medical summary provided by his doctor, plus his usual oratorical bluster, quieted concerns. Sanders’ push for Medicare for All is seen as a stand on principle. Yet Warren’s embrace of it was viewed as a political calculation, and then, yes, trashed as financially untenable. Sanders has never been pressed as hard as Warren on how he would pay for any of his proposals, nor questioned about the likelihood of getting Congress to back a single one.

If Warren is attacked and Sanders goes unchallenged, he could win Iowa and New Hampshire. After that, all bets are off.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.