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A less-crusty Sanders tests presidential waters

 Assessing a presidential run, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont visited Drake University in Des Moines during a visit to Iowa.
Assessing a presidential run, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont visited Drake University in Des Moines during a visit to Iowa.Steve Pope for the boston Globe/Globe Freelance

DES MOINES — An environmental activist had just finished her demands for clean water when Bernie Sanders got a nosebleed.

The independent Vermont senator stood in front of 40 gray-haired supporters, crammed into a small office and late for his next stop. A national television camera was filming the wadded tissue pressed against his nose.

It was a potentially awkward moment for an issues-oriented class warrior who often seems to scowl more than smile. But as he tests the waters for a 2016 presidential run, Sanders has begun to loosen up on the stump, softening his curmudgeonly demeanor with an occasional joke.

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So, with the activist’s demands still hanging in the air, he winked and quipped as his nose gushed blood: “The water, that’s what did it!”

Sanders is trying to show the media and left-leaning voters outside of Vermont that he knows the art of ground-level retail politics. He slaps strangers on the back and pauses for selfies. He admits to a frustration with his grandkids’ Legos and inserts references to Kim Kardashian in his stump speeches.

Why the change? “People have a right to know who their candidates are for president,” he said in an interview.

This doesn’t mean the self-proclaimed democratic socialist — known for blustery rants that turn his face red — has deviated from his critique of moneyed interests or spent any less time denouncing the media for its focus on political trivialities. His press releases go on for pages; he tweets facts more than idle observations.

But it does represent a public shift for Sanders, who has avoided telling personal anecdotes detailing much about himself in the nearly three and half decades since he won Burlington’s mayoral election by 10 votes.

Senator Bernie Sanders has appeared to step back from his curmudgeonly demeanor as he gauges reaction to a possible presidential run. He has traveled to Iowa, the first caucus state, five times in recent weeks.
Senator Bernie Sanders has appeared to step back from his curmudgeonly demeanor as he gauges reaction to a possible presidential run. He has traveled to Iowa, the first caucus state, five times in recent weeks.Steve Pope for the Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

For the longest serving independent in Congress – a 73-year-old who refused to concede his Brooklyn accent to New England — this is his fifth trip in recent months to the first caucus state.

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“He’s not the humorless ideologue people see him as,” said Garrison Nelson, a politics professor at the University of Vermont who has known Sanders for 40 years and recalls his attempts to cheer for every Burlington student at a high school track met. “He’s having a good time, he’s being treated like a celebrity. And why not?”

Sanders wandered into a packed Iowa City bookstore on a recent evening and appeared genuinely shocked at the crowd. He lifted an arm in acknowledgment, looking like someone had reminded him to smile.

Organizers billed the event as a reading from an eight-hour filibuster speech he gave in 2010 opposing a tax-cut extension for, among others, the wealthy.

Most comfortable in the role of lecturer, Sanders launched into the familiar points he hit throughout his visit: income inequality, rising college costs, student debt, climate change, the country’s failing infrastructure, the “oligarchy” created by Republican billionaires Charles and David Koch, who plan to spend almost $900 million on the 2016 elections.

His hands, which could have just conducted an orchestra, dropped.

“My wife always reminds me I depress everybody so much that I need to pass out tranquilizers,” he said, lowering his voice and cracking a smile.

Sanders never did read from that marathon speech. But he did pause for photos. Several devotees received rough shoulder hugs and handshakes before he slipped out the back.

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“He can be very intense when he wants to make a point,” said Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat and his longtime Senate counterpart. “But a lot of the time you see him in small groups with people he’s comfortable with and he’ll tell jokes, he’ll backslap you, he’ll make fun of himself.”

He credited Sanders with some of the best one-liners at Senate meetings and said the pair can hardly walk down Burlington’s main street without cracking up.

It appeared evident in Iowa that Sanders was working to reveal that more human side.

“People have a right to know who their candidates are for president,” Sanders said in an interview.
“People have a right to know who their candidates are for president,” Sanders said in an interview.Steve Pope for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Pieces of his personal life emerged in remarks at local meetings and universities around the state. He described his father, a Polish immigrant who arrived in New York as a broke teenager and managed to send his children to college by selling paint. He mentioned his “lower-middle class” upbringing, his wife’s discomfort with a presidential campaign, the seven grandchildren he adores.

“I teach them how to play baseball, and football, and chess,” he said, sipping tea at a Des Moines coffee shop. “Legos, I’m not so good at but I try to deal with that.”

Sanders has yet to decide whether the appetite and finances exist for a run, or what he calls a “grass-roots revolution” that would attempt to upend the way money is used in politics.

He faces improbable odds. Only 5 percent of Democratic voters selected him as their first choice in a Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll in January.

Sanders would need to overcome voters’ discomfort with the socialist label, which he explains as a Scandinavian-model that embraces “free health care, free education, and a progressive tax system” but which others associate with authoritarian control. (He carries a keychain from a campaign for Eugene Debs, who ran for president five times as a Socialist.)

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And he would need to determine whether it makes more political sense to abandon his proud independent title and run as a Democrat.

“If I thought someone who was a self-conscious outsider with a somewhat cantankerous streak, someone who was to the left of a lot of issues could be elected president, maybe I would have run,” said former Massachusetts representative Barney Frank.

Frank once wrote that Sanders “alienates his natural allies.” But his views changed after they worked together on the House Financial Services Committee.

“His public persona is forceful,” Frank said, “but that’s not inconsistent with being a good, retail politician.”

This is a man, after all, who is known to many Vermonters simply as “Bernie.” This is a mayor who recorded a folk album during his tenure, narrating “We Shall Overcome” because he couldn’t carry a tune. This is a decades-long lawmaker who almost never had a political career.

But there are limits as he introduces himself to a national audience.

Sanders enjoys attending movies with Jane, the former head of Burlington College and his wife of 27 years, but couldn’t remember the name of the last one they saw. He liked it.

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He reads a “whole lot of stuff” but gave no specifics.

A revealing feature?

“I’ve never run a negative TV ad in my life,” he said, reverting to his political safety net.

That unyielding message draws some voters toward him.

He’s not “the automatic glad-hand of a Clinton,” said Jeanne Cadoret, a 73-year-old former social worker at his University of Iowa event. “But I don’t view that as a negative.”

She watched Sanders as he listened to students and then eased toward the exit — but not before pausing to sign a few more autographs.

Related:

Bernie Sanders seeks to pull Democrats left in 2016 primary

Senator Bernie Sanders set for key role on budget committee

Bernie Sanders an antiwar, pro-veteran senator


Jessica Meyers can be reached at jessica.meyers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessicameyers.