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In Va., campaign trail could prove rockier for Bernie Sanders

A visit by Bernie Sanders, shown speaking Friday in Atlanta, to Liberty University will be like “Pat Robertson going to a nudist colony,” a state senator said.
A visit by Bernie Sanders, shown speaking Friday in Atlanta, to Liberty University will be like “Pat Robertson going to a nudist colony,” a state senator said.Tami Chappell/Reuters

WASHINGTON — The ‘‘political revolution’’ that Bernie Sanders is attempting to lead rolls into Virginia on Monday with a pair of events that will test the mettle of the surging Democratic presidential hopeful.

Sanders is booked to speak at a morning convocation at Liberty University, the conservative Christian school in Lynchburg founded by evangelist Jerry Falwell. The self-described democratic socialist senator from Vermont will undoubtedly face a more skeptical audience than the crowds that typically come out to ‘‘Feel the Bern.’’

From there, Sanders heads to Northern Virginia for a large-scale rally Monday night at the Prince William County Fairground.

As he seeks to woo Democrats in that rapidly diversifying territory and elsewhere in the state, Sanders will also have to overcome the influence of many of Virginia’s most prominent Democrats, including Governor Terry McAuliffe, who have lined up behind Hillary Rodham Clinton.


Although Virginia is certain to be a general election battleground, it could also become a factor in the fight for the Democratic nomination if Sanders manages to upset Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, as polls suggest he has a shot at doing. Virginia is among nearly a dozen states that have scheduled primaries or caucuses on March 1.

Patrick Hopkins, a member of Northern Virginia for Bernie Sanders, said he was delighted that Sanders will be appearing in two very different areas of the state on Monday.

‘‘He’s going to be delivering the same message in both places,’’ Hopkins said. ‘‘He is the same person everywhere. . . . That honesty in his communication I haven’t seen in another politician.’’

Liberty University, located in one of the more Republican-leaning parts of the state, is not an obvious stop on the campaign trail for Sanders. But he says that he is determined to take his message of economic fairness for the working class to all parts of the country and that he thinks it can resonate in some unexpected places.


‘‘It goes without saying that my views on many issues — women’s rights, gay rights, education, and many other issues — are very different from the opinions of some in the Liberty University community,’’ Sanders said last month when his appearance plan was announced.

But he said he would like to see whether ‘‘we can reach consensus regarding the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in our country, about the collapse of the middle class, about the high level of childhood poverty, about climate change, and other issues.’’

His planned appearance has brought snickers from Virginia Republicans.

‘‘It’s like Pat Robertson going to a nudist colony — peculiar and not going to get the results that they hope for,’’ said state Senator William M. Stanley, a Republican, invoking the name of another famous evangelist.

Sanders’s rally in the Manassas area signals the importance of that region for whichever candidate wins the Democratic nomination. Surrounding Prince William County has become Virginia’s true bellwether in general elections. The county has deeply red, wealthy enclaves to the west, an exploding Latino population around Manassas and to the east, and a densely concentrated corridor of black residents in the east. To succeed, a Democrat will have to excite minority voters.

That is a task that Sanders, who represents a state that is 95 percent white, has acknowledged is one of the hurdles facing his campaign. He and his aides suggest that he will connect once he and his agenda become better known. Sanders said Saturday that several of his initiatives, including raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and making it free to attend public colleges, should resonate among minority voters.